By Mark Herwig
Minnesota Conservation Volunteer
Excerpted and reprinted with permission
The endless prairie that once flourished in central North America was plowed under long ago and planted to grain by frontier farmers eager to make a living in their new homeland.
Today’s farmers are still working hard to survive on this land, but they are increasingly trying to make a living with new "crops"–enterprises that in many cases also provide valuable wildlife habitat.
One of these farmers is Tony Thompson of Windom. Thompson, who is always experimenting with new farming techniques, calls one new approach a "temporary wildlife refuge in a cropping system." Thompson practices wildlife-friendly farming on his 1,800 acres, particularly in his soybean fields. He used to plow the beans under in the fall and make two additional passes in the spring for fertilizer, herbicides, and seed.
But Thompson and his neighbors now use a combination of high-residue management (leaving cornstalks and other plant material on the ground instead of plowing it under), ridge-till, and strip-till, as well as the newest weed-control techniques, to leave more room for wildlife. Ridge-till is similar to no-till (no fall plowing), but it creates a 6-inch raised bed with 30 inches between rows. Strip-till creates flat, narrow cultivated strips for the seed.
Thompson plants a standard corn-soybean rotation–corn one year, beans the next–to take a more integrated approach to pest management. Thompson skips fall plowing and plants the beans straight into 24-inch corn stubble. Because the stubble is not plowed under, it provides some cover and considerable waste grain for wildlife.
Thompson, with support from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program, is also planting quick-growing cover crops of various forage grasses and legumes between the ridges. The crop grows as an understory to the corn and soybeans, providing habitat, conserving soil, sequestering carbon, and retaining nitrogen in the soil, as well as adding diversity to a two-crop rotation. Thompson said water leaving the area that includes his crop fields has had the lowest sediment levels in the Blue Earth River basin.
"There are huge potential benefits from new ecologically oriented cropping systems and agricultural technologies for people and wildlife," Thompson said. "I see much greater bird nesting success, both game and nongame. I’m finding upland sandpipers nesting and rearing broods right in my soybean fields, as well as bobolinks and mallards."
Thompson and his neighbors have also planted strips of native prairie along both sides of a three-mile stretch of creek. He received funds for his effort from the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to idle environmentally sensitive land. However, Thompson is glad to see the federal government now offers conservation incentives for land that is farmed, instead of offering only programs that require idling valuable cropland.
"I'm trying to consider my whole farm as a wildlife refuge, with the filter strips and wetlands acting as an inviolate refuge and the cropped land a temporary refuge," Thompson said. "Our whole neighborhood has become very attractive to many wildlife species. Many farmers would be willing to improve cropped land for wildlife if there were rewards to offset the additional costs and risks farmers must assume.
"Farmers are dedicated to environmental health. All special-interest groups need to get together and decide where we agree. There is plenty of work for all to do."
" and livestock production versus wildlife conservation on rural lands. In the meantime, some farmers have found ways–whether it’s raising unconventional crops or inviting hunters onto their land–to both pay the bills and contribute to conservation.
Bob Patton, Supervisor of the Energy and Environment Section
firstname.lastname@example.org, 651-201-6226 or 1-800-967-2474
Ag Marketing & Development Division