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Published on: Feb. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 7, 2010

My favorite melody has only two notes. It isn’t played on the radio or CD player. It comes to me best through open windows on bluebird spring days, the kind of days that you wish every day could be like. The melody is the whistle of the bobwhite quail.

I grew up on a dairy farm in quail country during what we consider the boom years for quail. Those boyhood experiences have always made me want to live in the country and have my own small farm on which to “cultivate” my family as well as wildlife, especially quail.

Thanks to the Conservation Reserve Program, I was able to create great quail habitat on a farm my family owned in northwest Missouri. CRP is the nation’s largest private-lands conservation program, with more than 1.5 million acres enrolled in Missouri alone.

Through this U.S. Department of Agriculture program, farmers enroll land in 10- to 15-year contracts and agree to plant grasses or trees in crop fields and along streams. The plantings help prevent soil and nutrients from running into streams and affecting water quality while providing wildlife habitat.

I managed the CRP land with food plots, burning and light disking. My sons and I edge-feathered the wooded fence lines and sprayed out invading fescue and smooth brome.

The CRP on that farm helped produce some of the most memorable quail experiences of my life, including one particular summer walk, when we discovered 70 to 75 baby quail scattered in groups along the trail. Imagine trying to take a bird dog on a leisurely summer morning walk with that many quail around!

If one of your favorite melodies is the bobwhite-quail whistle or, perhaps, the resonating booming of prairie chickens, you have a new opportunity to restore these declining wildlife species to your land.

State Areas for Wildlife Enhancement, a CRP practice just unveiled by the USDA, seeks to make CRP a more targeted and focused program in addressing high-value wildlife-habitat restoration. SAFE also enables conservation partners in Missouri to propose areas where new CRP acreage may be established to fulfill the habitat needs of quail, prairie chickens and other high-priority wildlife species.

Eligible producers in these areas may enter into new CRP contracts with the USDA Farm Service Agency. FSA will offer participants an annual CRP rental rate equivalent to soil rental rates for the county plus an annual maintenance payment. Also, the producer is eligible for cost-share assistance of up to 50 percent of eligible practice installation costs.

Lands Eligible for SAFE

With limited exceptions, land must be owned or leased for at least one year prior to enrollment to be eligible for SAFE. The acres offered must be physically and legally capable of being cropped in a normal manner.

Land must also meet cropping history and other eligibility requirements. SAFE enrollment is on a continuous basis, permitting farmers to join the program at any time, rather than waiting for a specific sign-up period.

More information about FSA’s conservation programs is available at local FSA offices and online at www.fsa.usda.gov. Click on “Conservation Programs.”

For the landowner, SAFE can be more than just a way to address specific wildlife habitat needs; it also can provide a viable supplement to farm income. CRP rental rates were increased an average of 16 percent in Missouri during 2007.

In addition, producers will be eligible for a one-time signup incentive payment of $100 per acre. Producers may also receive a practice incentive payment equal to 40 percent of the eligible establishment costs of the practice. The two incentive payments will not be offered during regular CRP signups.

SAFE in Missouri targets three specific wildlife habitats and customizes the practice to optimize wildlife benefits.

Sand Prairie Restoration

The goal of this SAFE is to restore sandy cropland in southeast Missouri with grassland projects that will provide unique vegetation restoration opportunities. The practice will benefit bobwhite quail and species unique to sand prairies, such as the eastern spadefoot toad and the Illinois chorus frog.

Sand prairies are one of the most endangered habitats in the state. More than 99 percent of sand prairie habitat has been destroyed by urbanization and conversion to pasture, sod farms and row-crop agriculture. Remaining sand prairies are being further degraded by activities such as sand mining and application of sewage sludge. The shallow groundwater aquifer is very susceptible to contamination from these and other land uses.

Sandy cropland is marginally productive due to the droughty conditions of the soil during the summer. These sandy cropland areas will be replanted to a mixture of short-growing native grasses and wildflowers. Shrubby covey-headquarters plantings also are required. Wet areas can be further restored and enhanced to provide habitat for amphibians.

Not only will this project restore habitat for quail and other declining species of wildlife, it will protect shallow aquifers from contamination by urban runoff, agricultural fertilizers and pesticides.

SAFE increases hunting and nature viewing opportunities and should provide the habitat necessary to ensure the success of recent wild turkey stocking efforts in extreme southeast Missouri. The restoration of sand prairies in southeast Missouri has the support of a number of state and local conservation partners.

Nesting Habitat for Grassland Birds

The goal of this SAFE is to significantly increase available nesting habitat to benefit the state-endangered greater prairie chicken and other grassland-dependent birds within six Missouri Grassland Focus Areas and a portion of Ringgold County, Iowa. This joint effort with our conservation counterparts in Iowa was developed in cooperation with the Missouri Grasslands Coalition partners.

Prairie chickens require large parcels of nesting cover within large, open landscapes. Hens prefer to establish nests in vegetation that is roughly knee-high and located near an edge with less dense cover, such as well-managed pasture, wheat stubble or no-till soybeans, so newly hatched chicks can move freely to escape predators and catch insects for food. Most current CRP grasslands do not provide this kind of habitat because they are too tall or too thick.

A variety of grass mixes with legumes or wildflowers may be planted. The minimum enrollment is 20 acres because prairie chickens and many other grassland birds require large tracts of grasslands. Trees along the perimeter of the planting must be cut down to restore an open landscape. Non-CRP incentive programs may be available to defray the cost of tree removal, if it is necessary.

In addition to the extra incentives provided by USDA for this practice, the Missouri Department of Conservation will add a one-time payment of $50 per acre after enrolled acres are planted. MDC also plans to help landowners identify and enroll less productive fields or portions of fields in this practice. This approach allows farmers to focus crop production efforts on their best land, while receiving SAFE payments for less productive acres and adding much-needed grassland bird habitat.

Bobwhite Quail Habitat Restoration

The Bobwhite Quail Habitat Restoration SAFE was developed in cooperation with Quail Unlimited and Quail Forever. Its goal is to provide the nesting and brood-rearing habitat necessary for bobwhite quail by creating diversity within a CRP field.

To thrive, bobwhite quail require at least 25 percent bare ground under the plant canopy. However, most older CRP grasslands have well below 10 percent bare ground. This practice is designed to produce and maintain additional bare ground.

The practice is offered statewide on all cropland fields. CRP contracts expiring in 2007, 2008 and 2009 will also be eligible. Landowners may enroll entire fields or partial fields, including field borders and contour buffer strips.

Landowners will be required to establish at least 10 percent of the contract in food plots and provide edge-feathering or covey-headquarters shrub plantings. Native grass mixes with wildflowers must be established.

With SAFE, you, too, have a new opportunity to open up a window on a bluebird kind of day and hear the melody of bobwhites. No batteries, electricity or audio equipment is required.

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