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Creating a 200-Acre Wetlands Is a Challenge Worth the Effort

Two years ago, I wrote about the 200-acre wetlands restoration project my husband, Bob, and I were launching on the Iowa farm we own with my parents [“Starting a Wetlands”]. It’s time for an update. You know the saying, “If you only knew what you were in for, you would never have the guts to do it.” I guess that applies to most of life, actually.

Not only have we forged ahead with our sizable wetlands conservation project, we added 80 acres of quail habitat this year. Part of that project involves planting a 20-acre food plot for the game birds. 

The pictures here show that our decision to convert the river-bottom land on this 400-acre farm into wetlands and quail habitat was the right one. With the proper dirt work and seeding, the land quickly converted back to its natural habitat. This land had been flooding more and more often over the past decade, and ponds formed quickly once we quit planting it to corn and soybeans.

many mowings

quail-food-plot
Quail food plot
Mowing was the key the first two years of establishment. We had a dry summer in 2017, which made it easier for Bob to mow the 200 acres of wetlands several times. It was days and days of mowing, but it had to be done to control weeds. The second year, he mowed twice to knock down remaining noxious weeds. The native grass is booming this fall.

Bob mowed the newly established quail habitat, except for the 20-acre food plot, several times this summer, and he will mow it again next year. The 60 acres of nesting cover have nine grasses and 22 forbs at a seed cost of $295 per acre.

Both the wetlands and the quail habitat will need mid-contract management, a prescribed burn, in year four. That is done outside of the primary nesting season of May 15 to August 1. Applying fire to the predetermined areas will control herbaceous weeds and woody plants, improve plant productivity, and improve wildlife habitat. 

Blue cardinal flower
Blue cardinal flower
On the 20-acre food plot for the quail, officially called early successional habitat, we seed annuals every third year. These are left standing, unharvested and undisturbed, for three years. We seeded this plot last winter with pearl millet, grain sorghum, cowpea, and partridge pea. We seed these annuals in years one, four, and seven. This practice allows volunteer annual plants to establish, which is beneficial to quail habitat. Invasive plant species and federal-/state-listed noxious and nuisance species must be controlled in the food plot.

These acres are part of a 10-year CRP contract. Livestock, vehicles, and equipment are excluded from the contract area to protect the vegetative cover. (This is where a drone comes in handy.) Physical barriers may need to be installed. In our case, there is no livestock around – just deer and coyotes.

wetlands-north-side
North side of wetlands, June 2018

Undesirables

Controlling noxious weeds (officially called undesirable plant species) is perhaps the most challenging part of the project. Three problem species in our fields are giant ragweed, mare’s tail, and giant foxtail.

The goal is to mow these before they form mature seeds. If we get them early, the mowed material can be left on the ground without adding to the seed bank. 

After the establishment period, spot-mowing, burning, hand-pulling, or spot-herbicide treatment can be used to control undesirable plant growth. Starting in year three, mowing, spraying, and burning aren’t allowed during the primary nesting season.

Where these CRP acres often go wrong, I’m told, is when no weed control by mowing or other methods is done in year two. Everyone mows in year one, but some landowners leave the land go in year two. Bob made sure he mowed several times in year two, as well. Native grasses such as fox sedge, prairie cordgrass, bluejoint, Indiangrass, big bluestem, and more now have a foothold in our wetlands.

Next year, we will need to watch for trees. They often become a problem in year three and four. We will scout and remove any tree growth popping up in the wetlands.

I will update you on the progress of our conservation project in future issues. If you have tips, send to betsy.freese@meredith.com.

Learn More

To see drone video of this wetlands project, go to Agriculture.com/video/from-crops-to-wetlands.

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