The Farm Bill and Missouri Landowners

By Brad McCord | October 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Oct 2003

Missourians have close ties to the land.They are proud of our natural resources and have worked diligently to control soil erosion, improve water quality and manage our forests.They also have a special tie to wildlife. Countless Missourians are finding ways to make their land more valuable for wildlife.

A variety of technical and financial assistance programs have helped landowners improve their property. The Farm Security and Reinvestment Act is the latest in a series of government programs designed to assist landowners. Passed by the Congress in May 2002 and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), this legislation is commonly known as the Farm Bill.

Many people consider USDA programs to be targeted solely to agricultural production efforts. Although the Farm Bill primarily addresses agricultural production, it also deals with a wide range of landowner objectives and a diversity of land uses.

For example, the Farm Bill provides federal dollars for technical and financial assistance to people participating in various conservation programs and installing beneficial conservation practices on their property.

The Missouri Department of Conservation provides staff to assist landowners and USDA staff with specialized fish, forest, and wildlife planning. The combination of Conservation Department staff members and the substantial funding and assistance provided by the Farm Bill can make a big difference to Missouri's soil, water and wildlife resources.

Steve Peoples of Shelby County is one landowner who has been able to take advantage of one of the Farm Bill's popular programs, which combines USDA funding with technical assistance provided by the Conservation Department.

Peoples farms row crops on about 1,200 acres. He switched to no-till farming in 1988 to reduce both costs and soil erosion. His property includes 210 acres along Black Creek that he believed would benefit from special management. He farmed the dark bottomland soil from 1994-2000, but because of frequent flooding along the creek, he was able to plant and harvest only three years of crops.

Peoples studied the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP) with cautious interest until 1999, when John Baker of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the USDA agency responsible for administering WRP, and Shawn Duckworth of the Conservation Department helped him formulate a plan.

"Staff from NRCS and the Conservation Department came out to the farm and answered all of our questions," Peoples said. "It helped me decide WRP was right for us, and a contract was finalized in 2000."

Along with the wetland restoration, the project included planting 37 acres of trees, as well as nearly 26 acres of native warm-season grasses surrounding the wetland. The tract also includes a healthy riparian corridor along the creek that contains a variety of bottomland tree species. Steve and his son, Anthony, are particularly proud of a huge sycamore tree along the creek. It takes five or six adults joining hands to reach around it.

The Peoples family especially enjoys watching wetland wildlife. In the two hours I spent on the farm with Steve, we observed turkeys, deer, bobwhite quail, great blue herons, several species of ducks, a yellow crowned night heron and countless other birds too agile to identify. Steve also likes knowing the permanent easement he has arranged will protect the land after he and his family are no longer able to care for it. In fact, Steve thinks the permanent easement may improve the value of the land over time.

"Having lived on the property 46 years of my life, I feel like the benefits of WRP are unending," he said.

Currently, Missouri has about 641 WRP easements covering nearly 93,000 acres. Most of them are permanent, and some are 30-year easements. The Wetland Reserve Program also offers a 10-year option for landowners who want to restore wetlands but don't want to place land in a long-term easement.

Another popular program with landowners across the nation is the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP. Administered by the Farm Services Agency (FSA), it started in 1985 and was designed to pay landowners for up to 10 years to remove sensitive lands from crop production and establish either grasses or trees. When managed correctly, lands enrolled in CRP significantly reduce soil erosion, improve water quality of streams and wetlands, and provide habitat for several species of wildlife.

Like all USDA programs, CRP is totally voluntary. More than 1.5 million acres of land in Missouri are enrolled in the CRP program.

John Grice, a retired Linn County farmer and landowner, has been active in CRP since 1985. He owns 996 acres in the Locust Creek watershed, and he has enrolled 378 of those acres in CRP. Locust Creek has long been a source of concern because of the potential for too much sediment or too many nutrients entering the stream. Grice says CRP has helped many landowners in the watershed reduce the amount of soil runoff into streams.

Grice is passionate about bobwhite quail and likes to work bird dogs. The 2002 season, he said, was the first hunting season since he was 12 years old in which he didn't shoot a quail on his farm. He said his property held quail, but the coveys were so small he didn't want to reduce their numbers.

Grice has been actively managing his CRP grasslands for bobwhite quail, and he is starting to see a difference. The cropland portions of the tracts were originally seeded with a mixture of smooth brome grass and annual lespedeza, but Grice now recognizes the benefits of native warm-season grasses, like little bluestem and switchgrass, for quail and grassland birds.

The woody draws and waterways, which are not eligible for CRP, originally contained head-high shrubs and saplings, including gray dogwood, American plum and aromatic sumac. These provided excellent loafing areas for quail and much needed bare ground under the dense canopy of the shrubs.

Over the years, Grice noticed those shrubby draws become dominated by full-size trees. These trees gradually shaded out the understory plants that might have provided habitat for rabbits and quail. In addition, the grasslands under the CRP contract became dense and thick with litter from several years without management.

Without intensive management, CRP fields originally seeded to brome grass revert to fescue and invasive trees like honey locust. However, thanks to prescribed burning and the help of a small tractor and disk, Grice is beginning to see his CRP fields hold more quail.

One convenient and inexpensive technique that Grice likes is to disk strips throughout the grass fields. The strips temporarily set back the grass and allow a combination of forbs and ragweed and other beneficial weeds to sprout. The strips also create much needed bare ground within the field. Grice also uses the strips as fire breaks for his prescribed burn program. He burns each field every third year.

It's important to note that landowners with CRP contracts must get approval from the local USDA office before any manipulation, such as burning or disking, of their CRP acres.

Grice enrolled in the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP) to control some of the invasive woody species and return the woody draws to more beneficial quail habitat. He's removing honey locust trees, and he's treating the stumps to prevent re-sprouting. The WHIP contract is a five year plan that provides cost share for the habitat practices Grice has implemented.

"These programs not only benefit me financially, but the wildlife gives me pleasure," Grice said. "It's a good deal."

One Madison County family uses the benefits of the new Farm Bill to better manage the forested land on their property. Harry Robbins and his sons, Arthur and James, have 975 acres of forest land and pasture in the Castor River watershed north of Marquand. They actively enhance their property for wildlife, while providing pasture and grassland for a livestock haying operation on their farm.

Robbins is a 15-year board member of the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District. He is also an accountant. He is familiar with many of the state and federal programs used by landowners, and he recognizes their value.

Joe Tousignant, a Wildlife Services Biologist with the Conservation Department in Jackson, has worked closely with the Robbins family, providing recommendations for habitat improvement and explaining program guidelines. He helped the family enroll its property in WHIP in 2000. The primary focus of the WHIP contract is improving habitat conditions for deer and turkeys.

Tousignant recommended creating two forest openings and developing two wildlife watering facilities within the forested portion of the property. Each of the forest openings was seeded to a wildlife-friendly mixture of grasses and clover to provide green browse for deer, as well as important brood rearing cover for turkeys and small game.

Robbins removed smaller and less viable trees from the acreage adjacent to the forest openings to increase the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor. This practice, called timber stand improvement, reduces the threat of red oak decline, a condition facing many older oak stands in Missouri.

Timber stand improvement boosts the value of the remaining trees, increases acorn production and improves the habitat for deer, turkey, squirrel and rabbit and other wildlife. The Robbins family also excludes livestock from forested areas of the farm. This helps reduce soil erosion and increases the amount of green browse and herbaceous cover for many wildlife species.

The Robbins family employs a rotational grazing system using low maintenance, high-tensile, electric, cross fencing. To provide a more dependable water source for livestock, Robbins installed a unique spring system that captures underground water that would otherwise have seeped to the surface. This watering system also has improved water quality, reduced erosion and created more usable hay ground.

To further diversify their grazing operation and provide additional benefits to quail and grassland bird species, Robbins has applied for cost share assistance through the Environmental Quality Improvement Program (EQIP) to convert a portion of his fescue pasture to native warm-season grasses.

Steve Peoples, John Grice and Harry Robbins are just a few of the many Missouri landowners who benefit from the provisions of the Farm Bill. Because 93 percent of Missouri land is privately owned, the future of many wildlife species remains in the hands of landowners like them. The Department of Conservation is committed to helping all Missouri landowners find ways to derive maximum benefit from their land while enhancing the conservation of Missouri's fish, forest and wildlife resources.

For more information about the kinds of help available, contact your Department of Conservation private land conservationist or local USDA office. They will help you determine how best to achieve your objectives for improving the soil, water and wildlife resources on your land.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler