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SF Blog: Starting a Wetlands

Last May 26, a 4-inch rain sent Middle River in Warren County, Iowa, out of its banks and onto cropland, drowning out young corn and soybeans. One year ago in December, the river came out of its banks after a 5-inch rain – unusual timing for that much moisture. This flooding has become more frequent in the past few years, as weather patterns and farming practices upstream change.

My husband, Bob, and I, along with my parents, own a 400-acre farm in the affected river bottom. Half is up on high ground and terraced; half is in the flood zone.

After the May 2016 flood and necessary replanting of corn, we enrolled the most flood-prone 199.28 acres of our farm in the Wetland Restoration (CP23) part of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The project runs for 10 years and is listed as an environmental priority.

Work has begun to turn this area, which long ago was a natural wetlands before farmers settled the area, into a wetlands once again. The program allows us to seed native grasses and forbs up until July 1, 2017. It may take that long to find a dry spell in this naturally soggy area. The problem with doing any work on a wetlands is obvious – it’s often too wet to get in there with a tractor. 

At right, most of the lighter areas in the map will be a part of the new wetlands.

Seed costs

To start the project, we met with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationist to discuss seeding options. A flood-prone seed mix with 11 grasses and 12 forbs was estimated to cost $140 an acre, based on last year’s prices.

When we gave the list to the seed dealer, he said it would be $444 an acre. A huge difference! Seed dealers refigure prices in late summer/early fall as they clean and evaluate that season’s prairie harvest. Normally, the price differences from year to year are not extreme, but with the high CRP sign-up, demand for native grass mixes is high. The species in our original mix were hard to obtain, causing the first mix to be extremely costly. 

After some back-and-forth, we settled on a simpler mix that cost about $165 an acre. Wetland, or hydric, soil is tricky, so 75% of the seed needs to be able to grow with wet feet.

The final mix has eight grasses and 10 forbs. Gone were gray-headed coneflower and swamp milkweed (the most expensive seed in the original mix). Wetlands seedings include more grasses than forbs, in contrast to a pollinator seeding, for example, that has more forbs than grass.

The final seeding for our wetlands is as follows.

Grasses: Big bluestem, green bulrush, fox sedge, prairie cordgrass, bluejoint, Indiangrass, slender wheatgrass, and fowl mannagrass.

Forbs: Blue vervain, monkey flower, ironweed, Culver’s root, seedbox, slender mountain mint, western yarrow, cardinal flower, black-eyed Susan, and sneezewood.

Some farmers restoring wetlands use a V-ripper in wet areas with predicted water pooling. This brings up the original seed bank that was there before farming broke the land centuries ago, allowing that seed to germinate. 

We will do the earthwork next spring to install rolling berms as designed by the NRCS. We don’t have to break tile because the ditch that the old tile systems empty into has filled with sediment over the tile outlets. If this ditch functioned and the tile outlets worked, NRCS would require us to break tile, even if it was 40 or more years old.

At right, this area of the farm flooded last spring and the corn was replanted. It will be in native grasses and forbs next spring.

Time line

In the first year of the program, our job is to mow, mow, mow. While the native species stay small and put energy into roots the first year, weeds grow like weeds. All noxious species and volunteer trees must be controlled. Usually three or four mowing operations are needed the first year.

In the second year, the native grasses will take off. Usually, several mowing operations are needed the second year. (Mowing for cosmetic purposes is not allowed at any time.)

In year three, the land is left alone except to spot-spray thistles, noxious weeds, and volunteer trees. Mowing is allowed only on a spot-mowing basis and must be approved before it’s commenced. In most cases, it will take two years – and sometimes three – for a project to become fully established. We have been warned that the first year all we will see is foxtail, marestail, and ragweed. Once established, our wetlands should be great for nesting because there are both wet and dry areas.

In year four, we will do prescribed burning of the wetlands for weed control – but not in the nesting season of May 15 to August 1. There is an option to disk the land, but we’d have to spread that work out over three years. We would split the land into thirds, and disk one third each year. 

For the remainder of the 10-year program, the land sits idle as native species and wildlife flourish. If more acres open up in CRPs in future years, we will probably sign up again, because we have more acres around the margins of the wetlands that should be in the plan.

Before I started on this wetlands venture, I talked to some farmers who felt CRPs are almost too complicated to navigate. I agree to some extent. 

Parts of the enrollment process and some of the management practices seem impractical. NRCS offices are often short-staffed when sign-up is high, as it has been lately. That said, the CRP has accomplished a great deal for the environment. 

We have been told to expect challenges with our project. That’s because this is a substantial piece of land for the CRP, and wetlands can be tricky.

Record Demand for CRP

Falling commodity prices and cash rent payments mean farmers and landowners are looking for alternatives to row-crop production. More than a half million landowners signed CRP contracts in 2016 to protect almost 24 million acres of wetlands, grasslands, and wildlife habitat.

The USDA will issue nearly $1.7 billion in payments and cost-share assistance to farmers and ranchers who remove environmentally sensitive land from production to be planted with certain grasses, shrubs, and trees. The goal is to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion, and increase wildlife habitat. Landowners enter into contracts that last between 10 and 15 years.

A new CRP-Grasslands program balances conservation with working lands. More than 70% of the acres enrolled in CRP-Grasslands are diverse native grasslands under threat of conversion, with more than 97% of the acres having a new, veteran, or underserved farmer or rancher as the primary producer.

During its 30-year history, CRP has reduced nitrogen runoff by 95% and phosphorous runoff by 85%, and it has restored 2.7 million acres of wetlands, says the USDA. It has also protected more than 170,000 stream miles with riparian buffers, enough to go around the world seven times.

The program provides 15 million acres that are beneficial to pollinators. Hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat have resurrected waterfowl and game-bird populations, like pheasants, quail, and prairie chickens.

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