“I think helping quail is just what is right for my farm,” said Cass County farmer Jim Riffle. “After all these years of farming, it’s time I give them a little back.”
It’s no secret quail need help. Nationwide, northern bobwhite numbers have dropped from an estimated 59 million birds in 1980 to 20 million birds in 1999 and have continued to decline. Most experts say habitat loss is the reason we don’t have as many quail as we once did. Other upland species, including many songbirds, with similar habitat requirements also are suffering.
Private landowners are the key to increasing upland species, and the new CP33 practice of the Conservation Reserve Program allows farmers to reap financial benefits for helping quail and other upland species. Giving a little back to quail can now pay off big.
CP33 is one of 27 Farm Service Agency Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) practices offered to agricultural landowners throughoutMissouri. The CRP pays landowners on a per-acrebasis over the length of a 10- to 15-year contract to retire cropland and marginal pasture for resource conservation. Missouri is one of six states given an enrollment allocation of 20,000 acres to enroll under CP33. The federal Farm Service Agency (FSA) administers CP33, which is titled “Habitat Buffers For Upland Birds.”
The primary purpose of CP33 is to provide buffers around field edges adjacent to cropped areas.
CP33 requires that buffers be from 30 to 120 feet wide. The buffers can be allowed to regrow to natural cover or can be planted with a mixture of warm season grasses and forbs. Disking, burning or chemical application can be used midway through the contract to enhance the habitat cover. Edge feathering of nearby trees and shrub plantings also enhances the habitat by providing cover.
Missouri studies have shown that quail are normally found within 70 feet of shrubby cover. CP33 buffers, which contain a combination of grasses, natural cover and shrubs, benefit quail by providing food, nesting habitat and protection from predators and harsh weather.
The cost of establishing buffers is minimal. CP33 provides cost-share dollars to cover up to 90 percent of the expense of establishing the cover. Then, you reap rewards throughout the length of the contract.
If, for example, you installed a 120-foot buffer around a 40-acre field, you would be creating 13.2 acres of buffer. With an approximate contract value of $80 per acre, you would be paid $10,560 over the life of the contract. You would also receive the additional incentive payment of $100 per acre that is now being offered to encourage enrollment.
Your farm profits would also increase if you maintain a buffer zone between your crops and nearby woodlands. These field edges typically have lower yields than the interior of a field. The 2005 drought highlighted the difference in yields. Last fall, the edges of many crops bordered by woods dwindled or disappeared altogether, sapped by the demands of the nearby trees.
Even in nondrought years, trees bordering crop fields take their toll. Studies conducted by the University of Missouri have shown more than a 30 percent drop in soybean yield within 30 feet of a treeline. Yields approached normal only when the distance from crops to the trees at the field edge increased to more than 40 feet.
In the face of lower yields, it’s hard to justify the cost of seed, fertilizer and herbicide for border areas.
A calculator devised by the Heartland Chapter of Quail Unlimited compares cropping income—taking into account the real-life costs of producing corn and soybeans—to possible CP33 income on your field. Assuming a 60 percent drop in yield along the first 30 feet of field edge, CP33 will increase profits from a 40-acre field by $15,000 over the life of the 10-year contract. And, that’s with a CRP rental rate as low as $55 an acre.
For a look at the calculator, visit www.coveyheadquarters.com.
Making the most of a grant provided by the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service, the Conservation Department and Quail Unlimited have teamed together to promote buffers in Cass and Andrew counties.
The collaborative effort is expected to result in more than 2,000 acres of prime quail habitat buffers in Cass and Andrew counties. Their work is already showing big dividends in terms of increased quail numbers.
Cass County landowner Ron Highley is one of many farmers who have found that it’s better to stop farming unproductive areas along the edge and get federal payment for it, instead.
“And, you’re benefiting wildlife at the same time,” Highley said. “CP33 creates a win-win situation.”
CP33 success stories are cropping up wherever the practice has been implemented. One Cass County landowner reported seeing more quail within two months of establishing a buffer than he had seen in the last three years. Another said he was amazed at how quickly quail began using the edge-feathered areas along the CP33.
“There were not any quail in that hedgerow last year, or even two weeks before we started edge feathering,” he said, “and now there are several pairs.”
Quail Unlimited surveys verify this anecdotal information. The organization followed several CP33 plantings in Cass and Andrew counties in 2005. During early October, in the peak of fall quail covey calling, they found an average of four quail coveys on CP33 sites, versus no coveys on unbuffered sites.
CP33 also has been increasing quail numbers in other parts of Missouri. For example, a Saline County farmer told how, after flushing a 20-bird covey while mowing his CP33 area, he decided to drive through all 60 of his CRP acres.
“I was amazed to discover three more coveys just driving along on my tractor,” he said, “and another covey flushed from an area planted with wild plums.” He estimated the coveys contained about 20 birds apiece. “It’s a real neat feeling to know the hard work we are putting in is paying off,” he said.
The best way to start is to contact your Missouri Department of Conservation regional office and ask for assistance from a private lands specialist or contact your county Farm Service Agency office. They can tell you what CP33 can do for both your farm profits and for quail. Agricultural landowners can enroll acreage in CP33 year-round.
To be eligible, cropland must be suitably located and adaptable to the establishment of bobwhite quail. In addition, the applicant must satisfy the basic eligibility and cropping history criteria for CRP. These requirements are listed in the CRP fact sheet, available on FSA’s Web site.
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