Field Notes: Back to Grasslands
John Bedtke stood on a high spot overlooking his Winona County dairy farm one day last June and told a handful of visitors to look around.
"What do you see?" he asked the farmers, DNR professionals, and researchers gathered there. What they saw on the 160-acre farm was grass-lots of it, an increasingly rare sight in southern Minnesota.
On Bedtke's pastures, the visitors also saw bird species that have become scarce as grasslands disappear. Bobolinks, savannah sparrows, and meadowlarks were flitting around grazing Holsteins. These grasslands birds were living testaments to the farm's success in creating habitat for wildlife.
Farmland as habitat may be even more critical as authorization for the federal Conservation Reserve Program ends in 2007. Then contracts to set aside almost 400,000 acres of Minnesota farmland will expire. Contracts for another 400,000 acres end in 2008. That means hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat could be plowed up by decade's end. Already farmers are reverting to row crops as contracts expire. Lincoln County lost more than 12,000 acres of CRP and Wetlands Reserve Program land between 1997 and 2002.
"Minnesota could lose a significant amount of wildlife habitat that's been protected under CRP," says Wayne Edgerton, DNR agriculture policy director. "In addition to preserving as much CRP acreage as possible under the next federal farm bill, we need to be creative at maintaining and improving habitat on working land that's in agricultural production."
To make perennial grasses a profitable part of their farm, John Bedtke and his wife, Donna, use a technique called managed rotational grazing, which divides a field into grass paddocks using portable fencing. They move cows to a new paddock every few days to prevent overgrazing and to distribute manure evenly.
One rotational paddock is on Whitewater Wildlife Management Area, adjacent to their farm. By agreement with the DNR, the Bedtkes temporarily fence 16 acres of native big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, and switch-grass.
Because cows graze there every couple of years, the need to do prescribed burns to maintain the grassland is reduced. "It's another tool we can use to manage prairie and provide habitat for pheasant, deer, turkey, and grassland bird species," says DNR area wildlife manager Jon Cole.
Grassland birds are showing up on the Bedtke farm too, according to a recently completed two-year study by University of Minnesota graduate student Melissa Driscoll. Many techniques that improve rotational pastures also improve wildlife habitat. For instance, resting paddocks for 30 days between grazings significantly increased the nesting success of savannah sparrows, according to Driscoll.
More rotational grazing operations are springing up in Minnesota. In 1997 the Natural Resources Conservation Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) drew up 25 grazing plans for livestock farmers. In 2004 three times as many plans from 4 acres to 2,500 acres were completed, and 160 farmers were on a waiting list.
Nevertheless, row crops, which cover the land only a few months of the year, have displaced perennial cover such as pasture. Between 1975 and 2001 in nine southeastern Minnesota counties, the proportion of acreage planted to corn and soybeans increased from 64 percent to more than 80 percent. Minnesota as a whole lost 30 percent of its pastureland between 1997 and 2002.
That's why conservationists should pay attention to what farmers like the Bedtkes are doing, says DNR watershed coordinator Larry Gates. "We will need to rely more on acres like this-land that's being worked."
Land Stewartship Project - Tips for providing grassland bird habitat on livestock farms
Brian DeVore, editor
Land Stewardship Project Letter