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Wildlife Friendly Farmland

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1999

Last revision: Nov. 3, 2010

Three years ago, when Darrell Haeker bought a 205-acre farm in Gentry County, some of the fields looked like abandoned strip mines. The eroded land grew little vegetation, except blackberries. Soon after purchasing the property, Haeker enrolled nearly 53 acres in the Missouri Agroforestry Program, which is administered by the Conservation Department with the cooperation of other state, federal and private agencies.

With this cost-sharing program and advice from experts, including Resource Forester Lonnie Messbarger, Haeker planted more than 5,000 native trees-oaks, pecans, hickory and walnut-with fields of orchard grass and clover in between. The 10-year program guarantees a profit from the fields by providing payments when hay production doesn't meet a set amount due to drought and other causes.

Today his land has been transformed. "The trees are doing well," Haeker says. "A few eroded out, but most survived." Last summer, the grass began to take hold, and now Haeker often sees deer and turkey in the fields. Instead of worrying about erosion claiming more of his land, Haeker's concern is getting his hay fields cut before it rains.

Last year Haeker enrolled 110 acres in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program. This federal program offers landowners technical assistance and cost-share payments to help establish and improve habitat for fish and wildlife. He also plans to work with state and federal agencies to plant pastures in warm season grasses and draw up a timber improvement plan.

Haeker is one of many landowners across Missouri who are taking advantage of state and federal programs to make their land more productive for themselves, for future generations and for wildlife. "I would have improved this land on my own," Haeker says, "but these programs allowed me to speed up the process." What he found especially valuable was the advice he got from Conservation Department employees. "Everyone was helpful," he says. "They guided me throughout the projects."

To help landowners like Haeker, the Conservation Department recently set up Agricultural Services, a coordinated approach to helping landowners find the best and most cost-efficient way to improve their land and wildlife using state, federal or private programs. So far, six of the 10 regions in Missouri have a private land program leader who seeks out the specific programs that will aid landowners in the area.

"We are helping private landowners get more bang for their bucks while meeting the goals they have set for their land," says Mitch Miller, program leader in the Northwest Region. He is evaluating programs available to landowners and figuring out which ones will help them put in cost-efficient, wildlife-friendly practices. Miller's goal is to stay on top of all the cost-sharing programs offered through various government agencies and to find the best programs to fit each landowner's needs.

Miller always is on the lookout for innovative ways to help farmers increase their profits. For example, he is working with local farm groups to connect hunters with landowners who are having trouble with deer eating their crops. With the new deer regulations, many people who haven't shot a deer in other areas can fill their tags in Northeast Missouri during the second season, but many of these people don't have a place to hunt, Miller explains. Getting these two groups together may help farmers experience fewer losses from deer.

Helping private landowners, who own more than 90 percent of the state's land, find cost-efficient ways to use environmentally sound farming methods is crucial to the health of Missouri's economy, as well as to its forests, fish and wildlife. Missouri is second in the United States in number of farms, and 66 percent of the state is in agricultural production. Agriculture adds $4.5 billion each year to the Missouri economy. "When the Conservation Department can help farmers and other landowners use conservation practices, the economy and wildlife can only improve," says Agricultural Services Program Supervisor Bob Miller.

Because landowners' goals usually involve several management practices, the Conservation Department is cross training field biologists so they can help landowners come up with a holistic plan for their land. When expertise in a specific area is needed, such as pond restoration or timber sales, the field biologist will put the landowner in direct contact with the right person-whether a representative of the Conservation Department, another government agency or a private group.

In Taney County, several Conservation Department experts helped Richard and Esther Myers achieve their goals for their 640-acre farm. Resource Forester Mike Huffman helped them with their forestry plan, which produces a sustainable yield of timber and provides habitat for wildlife. Management Forester Francis Dilsaver helped mark the trees, and Assistant District Forester Bill Altman and Resource Forester Greg Cassell helped with timber sales.

Wildlife Management Biologist Larry Rieken offered the Myers advice when they enrolled in a federal cost-share program to convert 30 percent of their fescue pasture to warm-season grasses. Rieken provided information on seeding rates and grasses to plant for both cattle and wildlife and loaned them seeding equipment. "Having a plan and assistance all the way through was valuable to us," Richard Myers says.

The Myers are interested in conservation practices that bring wildlife into the area. Part of their income comes from leasing land to deer and turkey hunters. They also are restoring a glade on their land, where they have seen turkeys with their broods, as well as lizards and small snakes.

"The main source of recreation for my wife and me is observing nature," says Richard Myers, who is a retired biology professor. Last year, for the first time, he heard the lonesome call of a male road runner, one of the many species that share his farm.

Sometimes, however, nature can be a little too close. Sharon Loh of Caulfield was having trouble with beaver damming up the overflow to her spring-fed pond and digging burrows in the dam on her 40 acres. The beaver also cut down a willow tree, which was a favorite hangout of the birds she likes to watch. After Loh called the Conservation Department, Wildlife Damage Biologist Scott McWilliams helped her trap the nuisance beaver.

Through the wildlife damage program, Conservation Department employees will lend traps and train landowners to protect their property from damage from wild animals. Now that her pond is safe, Loh continues to enjoy the wildlife on her property. She plants wildlife bundles, a special group of trees and shrubs offered through the Conservation Department's George O. White Nursery, to increase habitat for less destructive wildlife.

Jim Runyan is another landowner who wants to attract wildlife, as well as improve his land. His goal is to build up soil fertility on his pasture and to have a private wildlife area. On the 1,000 acres he farms in DeKalb County, Runyan has used cost sharing programs to install a watering system and fencing that keeps his cattle out of the streams and draws. As a result, the cows no longer eat the young trees by the streams. Now hickory and walnut trees are starting to grow, and he planted evergreen trees to stop erosion.

"I can't believe the number of deer," says Runyan, who also has put in food plots for wildlife. He planted 60 acres of warm season grasses, which provide cover and food for quail and other wildlife. To provide additional food for animals, he is planting pin oaks and blackberry bushes.

Like Runyan, Adrian Lee uses alternative watering systems and intensive grazing. With the help of cost-sharing programs from the Conservation Department and the Christian County Soil and Water District, he fenced off nine paddocks of pasture. After the cattle have eaten the grass in one fenced area, Lee moves them to another. Cost-sharing helped him purchase gravity and solar operated pumps that bring spring water to the cattle.

"These programs helped me a lot," says the 74-year-old retired school teacher who has been raising cattle all his life. "I didn't realize how beneficial these programs could be."

The intensive grazing system has many benefits, says Fisheries Management Biologist Kenda Flores. By keeping the cattle out of the streams and ponds, the manure stays in the pastures and fertilizes them, which cuts costs for the farmer and makes the streams cleaner for people, fish and other wildlife. The grazing and watering system also prevents diseases, such as foot rot, because the cattle do not stand in their water source.

Not all landowners are interested in farming, but they still need help improving their land. Rob Bolin and several of his duck hunting friends enrolled their 93 acres in Holt County in Partners for Wildlife. Through this Conservation Department program, Bolin has taken advantage of cost-sharing to develop wetland habitat for ducks and geese.

An avid hunter and regional chairman for Ducks Unlimited, Bolin knows the importance of restoring wetlands in Missouri. With Conservation Department funding, he and his friends put in five stop-log structures, which hold back water and allow them to control water levels. As part of the agreement, the owners will keep water in the wetland through the end of March to provide habitat for migrating spring waterfowl.

"We would have improved the wetland without the cost sharing," he says, "but the program allowed us to put in more water control structures and create more water control habitat." The owners have now enrolled their land in the Wetland Reserve Program, which will reimburse them for the agricultural value of the land that they will use to offset pumping costs.

Cost-sharing was important for David Williams to help him restore a wetland area near Chillicothe in Livingston County. Williams farms 2,000 acres, where he raises soybeans, corn and wheat and maintains pastures and hay fields for cattle. He already had 300 acres enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which is administered by the Farm Services Agency. One aspect of this program pays farmers to plant former row crop fields with native warm-season grasses, which fight erosion and provide food and habitat for wildlife. Williams' CRP fields lose less topsoil and are providing food and habitat for deer, turkey and quail. Through the USDA office, he learned about the Wetland Heritage Program. Dennis Browning, a wildlife management biologist with the Conservation Department, helped him draw up a plan to establish a wetland in some CRP land that often flooded.

"I own five lakes," Williams says, "but I thought it would be great to create more habitat for ducks and geese."

Frank Oberle, a natural history photographer, also was interested in restoring Missouri's natural habitat. With help from Wildlife Management Biologist Mike Jones, Oberle is converting 200 acres of overgrazed pasture on his 500-acre farm in Adair County into a highly productive prairie ecological system that contains more than 300 native plant species.

Oberle was able to get chemicals he needed to kill fescue and brome from Monsanto Co. as part of a program to restore prairie chicken habitat. Jones also helped him burn the prairie, which is crucial for some of the native plants to germinate.

"I've worked closely with Mike since I bought the farm," Oberle says. "He asked about my commitment and my personal involvement. If a program came by that fit my needs, he contacted me. Because of these programs, I'm way ahead of where I thought I would be three or four years ago."

Today Oberle doesn't have to travel quite so far for some of his photography shoots because his land now attracts a wide variety of wildlife. For example, on what was once a degraded hay field, he took photographs of a bobolink nest with four young. He also supplements his income with seeds he harvests from his prairie plants.

Native plant restoration is a goal for another landowner, the Wheeling Cemetery Board. According to President Harold Warren, the board enrolled the 82-acre fields surrounding the 5-acre cemetery near Chillicothe in CRP and is converting fescue to a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers. The Conservation Department furnished some of the seed, and the CRP payments provide income to help maintain the cemetery. Someday, the board hopes the native plants will attract a variety of wildlife to enhance the serenity of the country cemetery, while the wildflowers provide a colorful backdrop.

Landowners and their goals are as diverse as the state's landscape. To help them achieve their goals, the Conservation Department's staff is available to provide advice, equipment and cost-sharing programs. For more information, contact the regional office or the conservation agent in your area.

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