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Converting Low-Producing Land to Habitat

Strolling across Pete Berthelsen’s land in central Nebraska, you glimpse an agricultural heaven. His shop, surrounded by beautiful native prairie plantings, is flanked by clean, flat cornfields on the east and a spectacular view of Sandhills rangeland to the west.

Most days about the only sounds you hear are the bobwhite calls or a covey of quail and the buzzing of bees that are soaking up the pollen and nectar of native prairie plants.

Berthelsen, a wildlife biologist for Pheasants Forever, is as busy as a bee himself. He is always offering advice on establishing a habitat planting. His message is simple: You are better off identifying poor-producing cropland and looking for another use for it. There are annual payments, sign-up bonuses, and cost-sharing assistance if you are interested in planting a wildlife habitat. The payout can be competitive with returns from marginal cropland, and the natural value is priceless.

Alive with wildlife

As you witness from his farm, the land is alive with wildlife, offering paradise for hunters or bird-watchers. Berthelsen offers eight key points for encouraging wildlife on your farm.

  • Look at the numbers. Berthelsen puts a pencil to a current corn budget and encourages you to do the same. “Farm the best and conserve the rest,” he says. You can use your new technologies to identify low-producing land that can be better used for habitat or other conservation practices.

  • Make a difference in the world. There is considerable concern about the plight of honeybees and monarch butterflies. You have it in your power to make a significant difference by implementing wildlife projects, large and small.

  • Ask for help if you need it. Technical and financial assistance is available through state, local, and private programs. At the federal level, the continuous sign-up of the CRP is an excellent option, he says. All such programs offer a different suite of options that can help you out in planning, funding, and implementing habitat establishment.

  • Aim for diversity. The critical factor in establishing pollinator habitat, for example, is high plant diversity. Berthelsen recommends that you include a minimum of 40 to 60 species in a seed mix. That’s a good sweet spot for achieving diversity at a reasonable cost.

  • Begin work in the fall. “Autumn is a good time to plant new habitat seedings as well as a prime time of the year to manage your existing plantings,” he says. Such dormant seedings occur after the first hard freeze so that the seeds won’t germinate and grow that fall. The freezing and thawing action helps the seed break dormancy by spring when the soil temperatures rise and you have optimal moisture.

  • Get a good kill. “Fall is also the best time to establish native prairie-type plantings in existing grass,” he says. “You have to kill off those grasses. If the grasses that you’re battling are invasive species like smooth brome, fescue, or Kentucky bluegrass, that is the one time of the year they are the most vulnerable.”

  • Target a species. Berthelsen planned his habitat to benefit quail. One reason is because he likes to hunt, and quail responds quickly to habitat establishment. “Even if you are targeting an individual species – say you want to do something for monarch butterflies – you also benefit native bees, honeybees, grassland songbirds, and all kinds of wildlife. That’s because there is so much overlap in their habitat needs,” he says.

  • Be patient, and enjoy the ride. “Your new planting is not going to look like a prairie the first year. It’s going to look like a weed patch,” he warns. “So enjoy the ride. Wildlife habitat isn’t something you plant and Poof! three weeks later you have a great-looking field. Enjoy the development of the plants and the different wildlife species that come to use your habitat and benefit from it.”

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