Farms & Feathers

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Today’s news that 20 common birds are in serious trouble because of habitat destruction highlights the key role working farmland can play in helping out our avian friends, particularly grassland species. Designating “important bird areas” to heighten public awareness of this critical issue will help. And providing more public funding to state and federal wildlife refuges won’t hurt either. But birds don’t adhere to the arbitrary boundaries of refuges and “important bird areas.” They pretty much go where they please, and that means we need to make sure private lands are more bird-friendly. In the rural Upper Midwest, that means developing and supporting farming systems that are environmentally and economically viable. This doesn’t just mean setting aside more islands of habitat on working farms via initiatives such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) either.

Although CRP is an invaluable source of wildlife habitat, not to mention a godsend for soil and water, it is no panacea. A Minnesota study featured in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Field Ornithology makes that clear.

The case study tracks pheasant monitoring data from 1974 to 1997. What the data shows is that although there were, not surprisingly, more phesants in the vicinity of CRP lands, in three of the five regions studied, phesant numbers were down despite the addition of up to 8 percent CRP grasslands. The researchers, who are with the Minnesota DNR, conclude that in some cases the benefits of CRP may be wiped out by federal farm policy provisions that encourage farmers to convert pasture, hay and small grains to row crops.

On a regional basis, CRP is losing the race against industrialized commodity agriculture. What occurs on non-CRP farmland is key, and federal farm policy is driving that land use. CRP giveth, but the commodity crop program taketh away; and in terms of wildlife habitat, it’s looking like corn and soybeans grab more than CRP can possibly provide.

Such research should send an important message to Congress in a year when a new Farm Bill is being drafted: Yes, we should support and fund CRP, but we should also support working farm practices that provide wildlife habitat while producing economic benefits beyond a government check. We can do that through full funding of the Conservation Security Program (CSP), among other things. CSP rewards farmers for integrating environmentally-friendly practices into their crop and livestock operations.

And as a recent study conducted in Minnesota and four other states shows, farmers enrolled in CSP are not only getting rewarded for their current sustainability, but are being encouraged by the program’s incentives to add new practices that protect natural resources further. Farmers can add new practices as part of their initial CSP contract. They can also modify their contracts annually and receive higher payments by adding new conservation practices. The five-state report, which the Land Stewardship Project helped produce, finds that once they are enrolled in CSP, the majority of farmers are adding new conservation practices to their operations.

The most common conservation measure added to current CSP farms? Wildlife habitat. Those practices can include planting native grasses, fencing off wetlands and wooded areas, adding winter cover to cropland or adding grassed field borders.

Yet another recent CSP study found roughly half of 2006 CSP contract payments will provide either wildlife habitat benefits or result in pesticide reduction practices that benefit some wildlife.

“We signed up for the Conservation Security Program because it made sense for our farm,” said Brad Hodgson, who farms with his wife Leslea near Fountain, in southeast Minnesota. The Hodgsons have a Tier III CSP contract in the Root River watershed. Tier III qualifies a farm for the highest CSP payment. “One practice I started with CSP that I’ve never done before was including a flushing bar on my mowing equipment. Now when cutting hay you can see the immediate benefits of this practice as it saves wildlife.”

Government policy is one way to help birds on working farmland. Opening up channels of communication between farmers, conservationists and scientists is another.

Back in the 1990s, I witnessed firsthand how such communication could produce some impressive, real-world results on the land. In this case, the communication channels were opened up through an initiative called the Monitoring Team, a group of farmers, scientists, government conservation professionals and nonprofit staffers who worked together to create ways of monitoring the environmental impacts of sustainable farming. The farms involved were all based in southern Minnesota. As it turns out, the monitoring of grassland birds became the most effective way to get people talking, listening, and understanding.

One summer afternoon in the mid-1990s, I rode in the back of a Chevy Suburban truck bouncing along a fence-line. Its occupants were blurting out the names of birds flitting about in a nearby pasture.



“Eastern kingbirds!”

“What’s that? A savannah sparrow?”

“No, it’s a fence tightener,” announced one of the birders with a laugh
after a quick check with the binoculars.

This wasn’t a group of urban ornithologists talking excitedly about the
difference between a songbird and a hand-sized piece of ratcheted steel.
This time, farmers were the ones packing the binoculars and field guides
on a tour of a farm in southern Minnesota. They were being given a
mini-course on the feathered residents by Art “Tex” Hawkins, a U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service biologist, and Art Thicke, a dairy farmer who has
made birding a part of his livestock chore routine.

Both men are founding members of the Monitoring Team. Their enthusiasm for birds is infectious, and it’s easy to see why birding became one of the team’s most popular monitoring tools. It’s user-friendly and can put the development of sustainable management techniques in the hands of the farmers themselves. Because it can be worked into livestock chores like moving cattle and fixing fences, birding is a handy way for gauging some of the impacts a farmer is having on the land. It’s also more pleasant than grubbing up soil samples.

How certain monitoring activities rate on the “fun scale” while fitting
into daily farm activities is not trivial. During the mid-1990s, John
Doran, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist based at the
University of Nebraska, tried to develop a comprehensive soil quality
testing kit for farmers. The kit contained resources for testing, among
other things, soil respiration, infiltration capacity, bulk density,
acidity levels, nitrate levels, electric conductivity and compaction.

Taken together, all of these indicators should give farmers an excellent
idea of how their farming practices are affecting the biological health
of the soil. But when, as a dry run, Doran sent the kit out to a few
innovative farmers who were trying various sustainable practices, he was
disappointed in how they used it.The farmers reported back that they simply didn’t have time to fit the kit into their routine, says Doran.

Some farmers were overwhelmed by all the tests that could be done and
simply picked and chose indicators at random as if they were grabbing
different-sized wrenches out of a tool box. Such selective use of the
kit may have helped the farmers determine, for example, if their soils
were short on nitrogen or too acidic, but it didn’t give an overall
picture of soil quality. That’s why one no-till farmer in Illinois was
able to use the kit to reaffirm his belief that his intensive use of
chemicals was good for the soil. Doran’s experience with the soil
quality testing kit reinforced his belief that to be truly useful for
farmers and scientists, monitoring systems must give qualitative
measures—sights, sounds, and smells—the same weight as their
quantitative counterparts—hard numbers on pH and nutrient levels, etc.

Dickcissels and vesper sparrows aren’t the end-all indicators of how a
farm is doing ecologically, but their presence or absence tells a
big-picture story that’s hard to fudge. Wildlife biologists consider
grassland bird species to be good biological barometers in farm country
because they respond so quickly to changes in land use—bad and good.
That’s why it’s so exciting that by the third year of the monitoring
initiative, bird sightings and activities were among the first items
farmers mentioned during their monthly reports. When they got together
for meetings or field days, farmers were not bragging about their corn
yields, milk production, or even improvements in soil structure.

Instead, they were quick to let each other know about the number of
successful bluebird or bobolink nestings they had witnessed on the land.

As they became more aware of the bird life on their farms (and began
enjoying the birds more), the farmers took the next step: they started
wondering what impacts their livelihoods were having on the life cycles
of their feathered neighbors. At team meetings, the farmers began
discussing with Hawkins concerns they had about nesting disruptions
caused by haying, pasture clipping (a method for keeping the grass more
palatable for livestock), and even grazing. Although several of the
farmers observed that cattle were sometimes able to graze a paddock with
an active nest in it without destroying the nest eggs or nestlings, the
results weren’t always as positive when it came to mechanical forage

It became clear that the hay fields and managed pastures were in danger
of becoming avian “population sinks,” or booby traps, rather than
“population sources.” As a result, several farmers reduced or delayed
pasture clipping to allow fledglings to achieve some level of mobility
before the mower disrupted the nests.

Beef producer Mike Rupprecht did not clip any of his paddocks one year.
It didn’t appear to have any negative effect on the productivity of the
pastures or beef cow herd, and he and his wife Jennifer observed a
number of male dickcissels using taller plants in their pastures as
singing perches. Art Thicke also eliminated clipping on some of his
paddocks one year and by the fourth grazing, he says, “You couldn’t tell
where you clipped and where you didn’t.” In other words, despite the
lack of clipping, the cows still found the grass palatable.

One of the management techniques that got the farmers most excited about improving grassland species nesting success was the establishment of rest areas within their managed grazing paddock systems. This is the grass farmer’s version of leaving a piece of land idle for part of a season,
allowing the vegetation to grow undisturbed by grazing. In 1995, each
farm held one paddock out of grazing from the beginning of the season
until at least the end of July (most farmers on the Monitoring Team had
20 to 30 fenced paddocks).

The densely vegetated rest areas provide a place for birds to nest
undisturbed by cattle or machines. They also allow birds disturbed in
adjoining paddocks to retreat to the lush cover and re-nest. Farmers
noticed greater concentrations of bobolinks and dickcissels in the rest
areas during the first year of the experiment. A search of a rest
paddock on the Rupprecht farm in 1996 confirmed a successful bobolink
re-nesting. By the end of the nesting season in late July of that year,
Art Thicke and his wife Jean saw more than 60 bobolinks, some of which
were fledglings, flocking together on their farm.

In addition, the rested paddocks give grass and legume seeds an
opportunity to mature so they can re-seed either directly or through the
livestock. Allowing the grasses and legumes to grow for a longer period
also increases the root structure of the plants, thus improving soil

The term “win-win” is much used and abused these days, but that’s what
we seem to have here. Because these rest areas are showing a benefit not
only for wildlife but also for pasture productivity, these are
management practices that benefit the farm financially, as well as
improve the environment.

If the farmers had been told right out of the gate that their farming
methods were threatening grassland bird species, defenses would have
gone up, reducing opportunities for even minor management changes to
have occurred. Even farmers who have made the transition into more
environmentally sustainable methods, such as these had, aren’t going to
welcome outright criticism of their production system. But monitoring
took them through a process that started with newfound knowledge and
ended with appreciation and action.

As Tex Hawkins and fellow Monitoring Team member Larry Gates explain on Ear to the Ground podcast episode 32, this way of doing things has had profound impacts in certain segments of the agricultural and conservation community. The Monitoring Team philosophy, so to speak, has seeped into policy, science, even the way farmers rotate their pastures and beginning farmers gauge whether they are on the right track.

I’ve visited the Monitoring Team farms many times since the 1990s. I’ve even been to a few of them this summer already. I can personally vouch for one other positive outcome of opening lines of communication between farmers and environmentalists: more grassland birds than you can shake a field guide at.

One Response to “Farms & Feathers”

  1. Tim Gieseke

    Fully funding the Conservation Security Program is one important change, but not the only change that is necessary for farmers to begin to manage their production and natural resources at a higher level. To achieve natural resource management outcomes, outcomes must be clearly indentified and value must be placed upon those outcomes.
    The Midwestern CSP study mentioned in the article also found that most CSP farmers did not understand how payments were determined and what activities were valued over others. The study also found that the process to enroll was extremely cumbersome for NRCS and the farmers. Fully funding the CSP as is would fully burden working lands conservation.

    The most debilitating aspect of CSP is requiring farmers to sign 5-year practice specific contracts on how they plan on achieving higher levels of conservation. A new approach, a program based upon outcomes would allow for a streamlined, transparent process and respect the dynamic business that farming is. Whether it is about production plans, production resources, conservation plans or natural resources, decisions made on these issues must be made on the farm, by the farmer and in the context that weather, markets, labor, and the myriad of other forces imposed on farming exist. Developing a conservation program that does not consider that aspect is doomed to limited success.

    Tim Gieseke
    Minnesota Project
    Author – Conservation Security Program Drives Resource Management; An Assessment of CSP Implementation in Five Midwestern States