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Image of farm.

Working Farms for Wildlife

Can productive farmland also be productive wildlife habitat?
Some farmers and wildlife managers say yes.

by Brian DeVore

As dairy farmer Martin Jaus led a group of Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife experts through one of his pastures, he made it clear that his farm produces more than milk. "Every day we see something that just amazes us," Jaus said. "One day I was making hay and I had four raptors strike mice within 20 feet of the tractor. It was two red-tails, a Swainson's, and a kestrel. A lot of people don't get to see that."

image of a farm

Tour The Farm

Watch a multimedia slideshow of the Jaus's Sibley County farm.

The Sibley County farmer is describing something people might not expect to see: a working farm that is a haven to wildlife. Martin and his wife, Loretta, have identified more than 200 species of birds on their 400 acres. Waterfowl, pheasants, rails, and cattle egrets frequent the farm. Great horned, short-eared, and screech owls hunt wooded shelterbelts along field edges. Green and great blue herons fish in a couple of ponds, including one that attracts flocks of mourning doves numbering 400 or more on a summer evening. Bobolinks, loggerhead shrikes, and upland sandpipers share the farm's pastures with shrews, meadow jumping mice, leopard frogs, and American toads.

Habitat on working farms like this is a precious resource. The Jaus farm is in Minnesota's prairie pothole region, which because of its rich soils is some of the most fertile farmland in the world. Row crops such as corn and soybeans have replaced up to 90 percent of this area's original wetland basins and 99 percent of its prairies. Not surprisingly, populations of waterfowl species such as mallards, blue-winged teal, northern pintail, and northern shoveler have dropped by at least 80 percent since European settlement, according to the USFWS. Grassland songbirds are among the most threatened bird species. Bobolink populations, for example, plummeted by half during the past 40 years, according to Audubon Minnesota.

DNR plans for recovering duck and pheasant populations call for an additional 2.5 million acres of restored grasslands and 600,000 acres of restored wetlands in this region. Yet private farms occupy 90 percent of the land. Currently, the primary means for creating habitat in Minnesota's agricultural belt is retiring farmlands and setting them aside through the federal Conservation Reserve Program. But CRP alone does not have the capacity to meet the DNR goals. The challenge, then, becomes restoring wildlife habitat on active farmlands. "How do you get conservation on farmland without retiring it?" asks former DNR agricultural policy coordinator Wayne Edgerton. In other words, how can farmers protect and restore habitat while continuing crop and livestock production?

That's where the concept of working lands conservation comes in—implementing farming practices that benefit the farmer's bottom line and the environment, all on the same acres. The Working Lands Initiative—a state partnership of farmers, conservation groups, and local wildlife managers—and the new federal Conservation Stewardship Program are helping farmers aim to meet both goals.

"Nobody has found the perfect scenario where we attain 200 bushels per acre of corn and one pheasant per acre," says Tabor Hoek, staff member with the Board of Water and Soil Resources. "Working lands is about compromising between those two extremes of let's do everything for wildlife, let's do everything for maximum production."

Working Model.

The Jaus farm shows how to begin striking a compromise that balances farm income and wildlife wealth. During the past three decades, Martin and Loretta Jaus have built a system that integrates wildlife habitat with their farming enterprise. When such a balance is working well, it can be hard to tell where successful farming stops and cutting-edge conservation begins.

In milk production, feed is the number-one cost. The Jauses produce feed with a diverse mix of crop fields, pastures, and hay ground. To prevent cows from browsing a pasture down to stubble, the Jauses use rotational grazing, moving cattle frequently through a series of small enclosed pastures called paddocks. Perennial grasses flourish in the wake of this moderate grazing, providing excellent habitat for mallards, shorebirds such as upland sandpipers, and grassland songbirds such as meadowlarks. By preventing overgrazing and spreading manure evenly, rotational grazing provides good forage at low cost.

"It's fun when these things can work together and something that benefits our farming system also helps the wildlife," Loretta Jaus says.

Grass Wanted.

The Jaus farm is a great wildlife oasis, but waterfowl and songbird populations will only flourish if more farms offer habitat across the landscape. Since 2005, members of the Working Lands Initiative have been strategizing to coordinate and expand conservation projects on active farmlands throughout Minnesota's prairie pothole region. In 15 working lands teams in nearly 30 counties, DNR, USFWS, and other government biologists are working with farmers on conservation projects.

"We all want the same thing. We want grass. We just want it for different reasons," says USFWS biologist Stacy Salvevold, while standing in a grazing paddock for beef cattle in Pope County on a hot summer day. The "we" in this case means farmers and wildlife managers—the former need grassland for cattle feed, the latter seek it for wildlife habitat. Landowners in the south-central part of the county struggle to keep invasive weeds and trees from overtaking pastures.

A few years ago, farmers and biologists in that part of Pope County got together to talk about restoring grassland through their local working lands group. Mary Jo Forbord, who raises grass-fed beef with her husband, Luverne, says farmers "have a lot of skepticism" when it comes to government agencies. "These concerns can be overcome with face-to-face interactions," she says. The Forbords and nine other farmers met with DNR and USFWS biologists at a church or on a farm, rather than in agency offices. The group pored over different kinds of native grasses and forbs to create a local ecotype seed mix. The aim was to restore grassland with this mix that would be palatable forage for livestock as well as good habitat for bobolinks, pheasants, ducks, and geese.

Since 2007 this working lands group has worked with landowners to seed 70 acres of crop fields to native grasses and forbs for pasture and to remove invasive trees from 445 acres of grasslands. Farmers have implemented managed rotational grazing on 690 acres.

"In the past 30 years, [WLI] is the only thing I've seen that might just work [to serve farmers and wildlife]," says Forbord.

Stewardship Pay.

In 2008 working lands conservation got a powerful tool: the newly revamped Conservation Stewardship Program, created in the 2002 federal farm bill. CSP offers farmers five-year contracts for conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat, water quality, air quality, and erosion control. Farmers apply to enroll in the program through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture). The NRCS evaluates what conservation practices a farmer has implemented, such as providing nesting habitat or preventing erosion to improve water quality in a nearby river. A farmer receives a CSP contract with an annual payment based on the cost of environmental benefits that result from current and future practices. A farmer might receive CSP payments for rotational grazing or for leaving a few inches of water on crop fields in early spring to provide migratory waterfowl habitat. A farmer might get payments for adding crops of hay or small grains to provide spring nesting habitat for pheasants and waterfowl. CSP might reward a farmer for leaving dead trees for nesting woodpeckers or establishing native flowering plants for wild bees.

Minnesota is a national leader in using CSP: During the 2010 sign-up alone, farmers qualified for more than 1,500 contracts, covering more than 900,000 acres of farmland.

Southeastern Minnesota dairy farmer Bill Gorman signed up for CSP in 2009 and received a relatively high score on his NRCS evaluation for having rotational pastures, small grains, and hay. He increased that score by mounting dangling chains on the front of his mower to flush wildlife out of harm's way while cutting hay. Gorman is receiving about $3,000 annually for five years in CSP payments—not a lot, but it's better than pre-CSP, when his pasture and hay ground qualified for little or no federal commodity crop payments.

Gorman and other farmers say CSP tends to be weighted too heavily in favor of what farmers promise they'll do, instead of rewarding them for prior environmental benefits they've already delivered. But it's a step in the right direction, Gorman says.

"It's not perfect," he says, "but it's important to just have a program like this set up, providing a base for building a better ag policy."

Eaters as Conservationists.

The Jauses estimate they've lost 50 percent of their USDA commodity payments because they are not planting as many acres in corn and soybeans. But because they are certified organic, some of that financial sting has been soothed by the premium milk payments from Organic Valley, a farmer-owned marketing cooperative. This helps make up for the lower per-cow milk production of grass-based dairying and has allowed the Jauses to stay solvent without planting row crops fencerow to fencerow.

"I should say the consumer is paying for what we're doing here," says Martin as he walks across a grazing paddock, kicking up a young leopard frog. "We couldn't farm this way without the organic market."

Wildlife managers say there is a real opportunity to alleviate some of the financial risks of wildlife-friendly farming by developing food markets that reward such practices.

"We all [eat] three times a day. And what we eat can affect the landscape," says Edgerton. "Every day we can have an impact."

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