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Diamonds in the Rough

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Published on: Dec. 2, 2003

Last revision: Nov. 16, 2010

Without question, the Conservation Reserve Program has been instrumental in helping landowners improve wildlife habitat. However, enrolling your land in CRP is only the beginning. Improving wildlife populations ultimately depends on how well you manage your CRP land.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) was established in 1985 with the passage of the Food Security Act, or Farm Bill. Its primary goals were to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality and reduce crop production. Landowners enrolling in CRP receive an annual rental payment for establishing semi-permanent cover, such as grasses, legumes, trees and shrubs, on erosion prone cropland and leaving it for 10 to 15 years.

In 1996, wildlife habitat was added to the list of primary purposes of the program. CRP lands have benefited many species of wildlife. Notable beneficiaries have been waterfowl and pheasants in the Great Plains and Iowa, as well as grasshopper sparrows, field sparrows, eastern meadowlarks and other grassland songbirds, in many Midwestern states.

Simply having land enrolled in CRP on or around your property, however, does not automatically mean improved wildlife habitat. The value of CRP lands to wildlife depends on the composition and structure of the vegetation and the management practices implemented in each field.

CRP in Missouri

Nearly 95 percent of Missouri's 1.5 million acres of CRP lands are planted to cool-season grass/legume or native warm-season grass mixtures. The remaining acres are enrolled in CRP buffer practices, such as riparian forest buffers, filter strips, grassed waterways, contour grass strips and shallow water wetlands.

Many wildlife species, such as rabbits and quail, have benefited little from CRP. A four-year study of CRP grasslands in northeast Missouri conducted in the early 1990s concluded that CRP fields provided suitable roosting and brood-rearing cover for bobwhite quail between one and three years after planting. CRP plantings older than three years, however, provided some nesting cover, but offered little in the way of roosting and brood-rearing cover.

A follow-up study currently being conducted indicates that habitat conditions for bobwhite quail on CRP grasslands have not changed significantly. CRP fields that receive little management, or are only mowed periodically, quickly become dominated by perennial grasses that choke out beneficial forbs and legumes. This leads to cover so thick and devoid of food that it is unsuitable for wildlife.

Diverse plant communities, on the other hand, provide a variety of forbs and legumes that attract insects and produce abundant seed. This is important because young quail, pheasants and turkeys feed almost exclusively on insects in summer. They shift to seeds during fall and winter.

CRP Solutions

If you're establishing a new CRP planting, select a wildlife-friendly seeding mixture. A mixture of native warm-season grasses such as little bluestem, big bluestem, sideoats grama and Indian grass will likely be the best choice. However, cool-season grasses like orchard grass and timothy are also wildlife friendly. Any new planting, regardless of whether you select native or cool-season grasses, should contain a mix of forbs and legumes. Avoid planting tall fescue, reed canary grass and caucasian bluestem.

Periodic management of CRP grasslands can provide quality habitat for a variety of wildlife species, many of which are declining both locally and nationally. Practices that can be implemented on CRP grasslands to benefit wildlife include prescribed burning, strip disking, planting shrubs and establishing food plots. Used in combination, these practices can change a CRP field choked with thick grass into a magnet for a variety of wildlife.

Prescribed Burning

Prescribed burning is one of the most efficient and beneficial wildlife management practices. Careful planning is required to conduct safe and effective prescribed burns. Periodic burning can be used to reduce perennial grass dominance, increase plant diversity and remove excess plant litter, making it easier for wildlife to move through the stand. In most instances it is important to burn only one-third to one-half of the CRP acres on a farm. The unburned areas serve as nesting cover, while the burned areas provide brood-rearing and roosting cover during the summer and fall.

The timing of a prescribed burn is important because plant communities respond differently to burns at different times of the year. For instance, burning in mid to late spring will set back cool-season grasses and encourage native warm-season grasses. Early spring burns have the opposite effect. Fall and winter burning, on the other hand, generally favors forbs and legumes. It is generally good to burn every field on a two- to four-year rotation, mixing up the times of year you burn.

Strip Disking

Dense sod and vegetation are detrimental to wildlife feeding and movement. You can break up those elements by disking. This technique involves disking strips 25 to 75 feet wide through a field during fall or spring. Disked strips should be as long as possible. They should follow the contour of the field and be separated by undisturbed vegetation twice as wide as the disked strips to prevent erosion. The disked areas will provide brood-rearing and roosting cover for species, such as bobwhite quail. The undisked areas will provide nesting cover.

The best time to disk is between October 1 and March 30. In most instances it will be necessary to burn or mow the areas before disking so the disk blades will cut effectively. Strip disking can be used in conjunction with, or as an alternative to, prescribed burning to break up and diversify dense stands of CRP grasses. Rotate the disked strips around the field from year to year. This will create a situation in which multiple vegetation types are present within each field, maximizing wildlife benefits. For quail, disked strips should be within 50 feet of dense shrub cover.

Shrub Plantings

In large CRP fields, or in fields with little shrubby vegetation around or within them, small shrub plantings can benefit wildlife. They're essential if you're managing for bobwhite quail. Biologists often refer to areas of dense shrubby cover as "covey headquarters" because they are the foundation of a covey's home range. These areas serve as escape cover from predators and protection from harsh winter weather and mid-day summer heat.

Covey headquarters should be 3-10 feet tall when mature, with little vegetation at ground level to restrict movement. The shrubby cover should be thick enough to make it difficult for a person to walk through it. Plum, blackberry, sumac, rough-leafed dogwood and coral berry are good "cover headquarter" plants.

For CRP fields bordering woodlands or having woody draws running through them, "edge feathering" can be used to create covey headquarters in a shorter time than with shrub plantings. Edge feathering provides a gradual transition zone from one habitat type to another using a mixture of plants from each of the adjoining habitats.

Food Plots

Food plots can serve many purposes, such as providing brood-rearing cover and emergency winter food. In some instances, they can substitute for woody cover.

Food plots ranging from one-quarter acre to one-half acre should be established every 40 acres and located within 50 feet of woody cover. Long, linear food plots planted with annual grains are better for small game wildlife. Larger, blocked food plots consisting of green-browse forages, like clover, are better for deer.

Combine Practices

Individually, each of the above mentioned practices can enhance CRP grasslands for wildlife. Combined, they can be used to create a wildlife oasis.

For example, strip disking after a prescribed burn will create and maintain a diverse plant community and provide feeding and nesting cover for wildlife. Establishing food plots next to shrubby cover will create quality covey headquarters for quail.

To learn more about managing CRP for wildlife, contact your county USDA office or visit your nearest Conservation Department office. A private land conservationist, wildlife management biologist or NRCS technician can help you plan management options best suited for your CRP property.

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