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Our story today concerns relatively minor changes made to cropland that result in better bird habitat — hence more game birds for hunters. Dr. Joe Barnes is a physician in the north central Kansas town of Smith Center. Joe likes to hunt.
“We’ve hunted with the same group every year and my sons… we try to get together opening weekend.”
Joe bought some farmland, on which to hunt pheasant and quail.
“I think initially it was farmed: beans (there’s not much cover after you harvest beans) and wheat (the stubble was only six inches high). I kind of got frustrated with that.”
He thought maybe enrolling some acreage in CRP might be the answer, might provide better cover for the birds.
“You know, that’s not so good for the local folks because all the farmers are looking for acres and after a number of years it went back into farmland.”
But Joe Barnes repeated that following a conventional crop harvest the ol’ land is kinda barren, and he wasn’t seeing that many game birds to hunt.
“Normally after harvest, one of the first things that occurs is immediate burn down with Roundup of anything that’s still green. At that point, the wheat has been harvested and people are starting to see things like weeds starting to grow back up in that field. All of these things have historically been perceived as bad things.”
Meet Tyson Seirer. He’s a farm bill biologist with Pheasants Forever. He reminds us that what that does, is eliminate life.
“Those plants are what attracts bugs, which is the beginning of the life cycle for broods of pheasant and quail chicks. By removing that food source you reduce the chance of success for brooding habitat.”
After Barnes had taken the land out of CRP and returned it to cultivation, he established some grass buffers around parcels of the 500-acre farm — hoping to attract game.
“The filter strips came about, then the quail buffers.”
“These are usually field edge buffers, particularly installed to benefit quail or have water quality benefits.”
But results were disappointing. Barnes met with Tyson Seirer, who brought good news. He said Barnes could make a difference in the upland bird population without spending any money. Seirer suggested making changes to the harvest, leaving a higher stubble, and to delaying chemical applications until later, to increase nest success and brood survival. Dr. Barnes had been reading about a different way of harvesting wheat, using a different combine header, what’s called a “stripper header.”
“I bought one by auction so I had a 24’ stripper header that attached to my tenant’s John Deere combine, and he kind of got enthused about using it.”
That new header leaves a taller stubble.
“You can drive by the fields and it doesn’t look like they’ve been cut because the stubble is still standing.”
Tyson Seirer evaluated Barnes’ land and recommended steps the landowner and his tenant could take to improve habitat for upland game birds. They’re planting taller varieties of wheat. At harvest, the stripper header takes only the wheat head and leaves a tall stubble. They’re cover-cropping into that stubble between cash crops, with a beneficial cocktail that shades the soil and reduces evaporation, while providing huntable cover for winter months. They’re leaving strips of unharvested milo for fall hunting. Sounds like Joe Barnes is beginning to see his efforts at improving bird habitat in harvested crop fields pay off.
“I’ve really seen the quail numbers increase; I’ve seen several coveys of quail. I’m not sure about the pheasants; I just haven’t seen them this year. I hope they’re out there.”
Playa Country, which ended in late 2016, was a weekly show that featured conservation and wildlife experts — as well as farmers, ranchers and land managers — talking about conservation practices that improve wildlife habitat and landowners’ bottom-line.