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Save Time and Help Pollinators

Cut down on mowing time this summer by planting a pollinator habitat.

Spread a little too thin this year? Time is money, as the popular saying goes. What if you could implement something on your property that would save you time throughout the summer and, best of all, forestall federal regulation?

There’s a fear that monarch butterflies may be put on the endangered species list, and this could mandate how you farm. The monarch population has plummeted the past 15 to 20 years, says Bob Hartzler, Iowa State University Extension weed specialist.

“We know there’s a decline in milkweed, but the extent to which the decline in milkweed is responsible for the decline in monarchs is still uncertain.”

That’s where pollinator habitats enter the picture. Planting pollinator habitats where you would normally mow – ditches, waterways, and other areas not in production – can help free up your time and help pollinators, too.

That’s what James Moseley, who farms near Lafayette, Indiana, thinks. “There are a lot of farmers, who, if they were approached correctly, would do these things,” says Moseley. “All farmers have places they mow. These areas are the perfect environment for warm-season grasses and forbs.”

While there’s an up-front investment, these habitats need minimum upkeep once they’re established. Whether it’s 1 acre or 10 acres, it will help to increase the population of beneficials, such as honeybees, wild bees, or other insect pollinators, plus, it will reduce time spent mowing, says Moseley.

It’s not just honeybees that will benefit from pollinator habitat – monarchs will, too. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed; without it, they can’t survive. Not only that, monarch butterflies also rely on milkweed for laying their eggs, says Hartzler.

What We Know

Back in 1999, Hartzler helped conduct a survey to find out the milkweed populations in crop fields in Iowa. The general assumption was there weren’t many milkweeds. He was surprised by the results.

“So, 50% of corn and soybean fields had milkweed in them. Never at an economic infestation level, but it was present,” says Hartzler.

“Entomologists later determined that the monarch, for whatever reason, prefers to lay its eggs on milkweeds that are in crop fields,” he says.

Ten years later, in 2009, researchers conducted another survey and found milkweed was only present in 10% of fields. “We assume the decline of milkweed is from widespread use of glyphosate and Roundup Ready crops,” he says.

“There’s a lot of milkweed in ditches. However, the majority of the land mass is in crop fields, and we have eliminated a lot of the habitat,” Hartzler says.

“We have a decline in milkweeds across the Corn Belt. We know that’s where most of the monarchs are born, and that decline coincides with the decline of monarchs at the overwintering sites in Mexico,” he says.

“There’s a concern that if the monarch population remains low, a traumatic weather event at the overwintering sites in Mexico could reduce the population to a level they would not be able to recover from,” says Hartzler.  

Creating habitat

Pollinator mixes available through the NRCS contain forb, legume, and grass seed to add diversity and structure. Taking it one step further and adding milkweed to the mix would make it friendly to the monarchs, too.

“Additional seed of milkweed species could be added to the pollinator mixes to make the areas more attractive to monarchs,” says Hartzler.

“We have a lot of research going on now looking at how we can alter the landscape to improve the reproduction of the monarch,” says Hartzler. “It’s our view that it’s not reasonable to expect farmers to alter their weed-management programs in corn and soybeans to allow milkweed to survive in those fields. We want to look at how we can increase the amount of milkweed found in other habitats in a way that will best benefit the monarch population.”

Research is determining whether the monarch prefers a particular species of milkweed, and if they prefer certain areas of the landscape. “The monarch relies mostly on common milkweed, primarily because that’s what’s most prevalent. Common milkweed is the most adaptive; it does well in crop fields and ditches,” says Hartzler.

Concerned about Establishing a Weed on Your Property?

“As farmers look at the land they own or manage, if there are weeds outside of the crop fields – whether it’s in a ditch, waterway, or a terrace – we always encourage them to keep those areas free of problem weeds, ones that threaten production,” says Hartzler.

“If they have giant ragweed in their fencerows or terraces, we strongly encourage them to take steps to try to control it,” explains Hartzler. “We know the giant ragweed will move into their fields. Milkweed is not a threat in current production systems.”

For that reason, if you stumble across milkweed, Hartzler advises against spraying or mowing those areas.

Next steps

Hartzler says researchers are looking for economical ways to establish habitat, not only for monarchs but also for other pollinators and beneficials.

“If you have areas on your farm that aren’t involved in production, we are looking at what you can do to enhance the usefulness,” he says.

If you’ve installed a bioreactor or a saturated buffer for conservation efforts, you might have one of the answers. The Iowa Soybean Association has provided funding to support establishment of monarch habitat on existing bioreactors, says Hartzler. Then, the Iowa Pork Producers Association is assisting in establishment of habitat at confinements. The hope is that the increased diversity of vegetation across the landscape will positively impact monarchs, pollinators, and beneficial organisms.

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