Practicing what they preach and what they’ve learned best describes Justin and Tamara Trail, owners of the Trail Ranch, a wildlife operation near Albany, Texas.
Dale Rollins, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s statewide coordinator for the Reversing the Quail Decline Initiative at San Angelo and director of the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch at Roby, said the couple’s operation boasts some of the best examples of quail and white-tailed deer habitat management in the region.
And the Trails aren’t bashful about sharing their management insight with others, Rollins added.
“As an example of their hospitality and willingness to help, Justin and Tamara will be opening their gates to host a special tour on their ranch just south of Albany at 1 p.m. Sept. 16. The tour is part of the Statewide Quail Symposium set for Sept. 16-18 in Abilene,” Rollins said. “I was there recently with AgriLife Extension’s QuailMasters, a group of serious students of quail, and the place looks great with their quail responding nicely.
“Justin is a very hands-on, innovative manager with an unwavering eye on a return on investment. He’s an impetuous quail manager by his own confession, always looking for management actions to fast forward quail abundance on their property. Accordingly, he’s usually ahead of the cutting edge relative to quail management. The upcoming tour will give us a chance to see Justin’s innovative ideas and his and Tamara’s passion for the land; it should be a great tour and a good kick-off for our symposium, that Justin also chairs.”
Rollins has known Justin since 1996 when Trail served as an adult “Covey Leader” at both Rolling Plains and South Texas Bobwhite Brigades. The brigades, conducted by Rollins, are a series of AgriLife Extension youth camps that use various wildlife species as a nucleus to teach wildlife management, conservation and leadership skills.
Justin Trail said their current ranch was put together in three transactions from 2009-2011.
“Tamara and I both spent time in Shackelford County in the late 1990’s. I was in the hunting business and she was an AgriLife Extension wildlife specialist and later director of education for the Texas Wildlife Association. We both loved this part of the world and saw it as a great place to raise a family, so when I got into the insurance business, my current vocation, we started leasing country near Albany and started buying land here. I think this area is the best mixed use recreational hunting country north of Interstate 10. It’s got great quail, dove, turkey, deer and duck hunting within two and a half hours of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.”
He said their current place had been leased for several years and was in rough shape from overgrazing, but was well located, just two miles south of Albany.
“Our management objectives were clear from the beginning,” he said. “We manage for a maximum interaction and opportunity mix between wildlife and people new to the outdoors in a way that is sustainable long-term. If we were trying to produce the biggest bucks or the biggest bass we would have done things differently. And even when it comes to optimizing quail habitat over the entire ranch, we would have done things differently, but that’s not been our goal. Our goal is to have a kid catch a fish on just about every cast and see wildlife every time they go afield.”
He said their first management steps were to remove the cattle and plan pasture roads to see what they had. They then developed a plan to turn what was primarily mesquite and prickly pear into something to better meet their objective.
Quail numbers over the past six years have been thin without a huntable number until last year and even then, he said numbers were very light.
“I wasn’t sure we would ever get quail back to huntable numbers,” he said. “From a brush management perspective, I was concerned that if we implemented a quail-friendly brush extraction over the entire place and the quail did not come back, then we would have negatively impacted the deer cover. So we have prescribed to the theorem that it is easier to take more brush later than it is to put it back.”
He said most of the ranch’s mesquite and prickly pear have been managed to some degree in any of a number of ways including grubbing, burning, aerial spraying and individual plant treatments.
“Overall, the response has been incredible,” he said. “Even during the last few dry years the plant diversity has really been impressive. Warm-season grasses and forbs not visible in the pastures when we started have responded really well to the soil disturbance. This part of the world wants to grow brush and grass. You have to disturb the soil to get the meaningful amounts of forbs quail and deer relish.”
The couple’s future ranch plans include using a pasture aerator on some of the treated areas and starting follow-up treatments to keep noxious vegetation from re-invading those previously treated sites. They also plan to add cattle next winter through March to strategically remove some grass cover, specifically Texas winter grass. Their strategy is to stock heavily for about 90 days, then remove the cattle to allow warm season grasses and forbs to become better established.
“Good stewardship doesn’t sound very complicated if you say it fast,” he said. “But getting the plants you want where you want them, when you want them on the scale you want them, all while relying on Mother Nature to provide the moisture, can be tough, though ultimately rewarding.
“But the main way we track success in all that we do is the number of ‘firsts’ accomplished for our clientele, and not the total inches or some other trophy related measuring metric. A trophy to us is a person’s first harvest or the first time they flush a covey of quail behind a brace of pointing dogs, or the first time they call a turkey in to 20 yards and it gobbles and struts in front of them. That’s what moves my needle, to see the excitement in another person that often results in a long-term appreciation for wildlife and the land.”
Rollins said the couple, both with range and wildlife management degrees from Texas A&M University, is an example of the axiom “pay it forward,” when it comes to their ranch. He said it is being managed not only as a sustainable income producer, but also as a legacy for their three young daughters to whom they someday hope to pass the torch, thus enabling another generation to benefit from their parents’ management skills and legacy-and perhaps share that legacy by educating others in conservation stewardship as well.
For further information on the Trail Ranch tour contact Rollins at 325-653-4576, firstname.lastname@example.org. To get to the tour location: go three-quarters of a mile south of Albany on U.S. Highway 283 from the junction with U.S. Highway 180, which is a half mile past the EZ Feed and Supply. The ranch entrance is on the east side of U.S. Highway 283.
For further information on the Statewide Quail Symposium, go to www.statewidequailsymposium.com .