Conserving Playas Provides Lush Grazing and Bird Habitat


Shaw Family Farms had several playas that often made farming the field a challenging proposition. The Shaws fenced-off 80 acres, developed those resident playas by restoring natural hydrology and planting grass buffers. They further enhanced the parcel by planting a variety of grasses and forbs to attract bugs and birds, then put the land in a permanent conservation easement. Their cows and calves now graze the wetland parcel, and bugs and birds are attracted to the forbs and seeds.

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This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.

If only every crop producer had flat and level fields of well-drained soil. For many, that isn’t the case. Some fields have mud holes that retain water long after a rainfall, and often producers farm through those mud holes — also known as playa lakes. We call playas “ephemeral wetlands.” They’re usually dry, but when it rains those playas fill with water, becoming shallow lakes or mud holes, sometimes for months. Ever the eternal optimists, producers often farm through those mud holes, planting expensive seed and putting down chemicals. . . even though a rain a month before harvest might drown-out the crop and waste those expensive inputs. Who needs that?

More and more, producers are abandoning their attempts to farm those wetlands. They’re fencing them off, planting them back to grass and forbs, grazing cattle and providing wildlife habitat. That’s what Shaw Family Farms at Fairfield Nebraska did with an 80-acre plot.

“It had two different historic wetland footprints that totaled about 30 acres. Those wetland footprints continued to pond water and cause crop stress and loss of crops on those acres.”

That’s Andy Bishop. He’s coordinator of Rainwater Basin Joint Venture in Nebraska. Brian Shaw farms with his dad Steve.

“That 80 acres had about… in probably about 75 percent of the years there’d be a 10 to 15 acre drown out area in it.”

The Shaws have a cow-calf operation, and farm 75 percent irrigated and 25 percent dryland. They raise a lot of corn and some soybeans, and produce a thousand calves a year. The cows and calves need lots of forage. The Shaws fenced-off that parcel and created some lush grazing land.

“What they did was… there was a surface drain that needed plugged; there was some material that had been deposited in the wetland footprint that was excavated; and they did about a 50-species mix of native, warm and cool season grasses as well as a diversity of forbs.”

That land conversion was done a couple years ago. At the time, cattle prices were on a good trajectory. Commodity prices probably were about as high as they were going to get.

“They really took a leap of faith at a time when most people probably thought they were crazy taking cropland out of production to restore wetland grassland.”

Brian Shaw says that grazing area is fenced into four, 20-acre paddocks and they’re using intensive grazing practices. Even though this project was intended to provide cattle forage, and it’s being managed for that goal, Andy Bishop says cattle grazing is an important grass management tool in the management of wildlife habitat.

“Through grazing, we’re able to promote that diversity of annual species that grow the seeds that the waterfowl feed on during the spring migration. Also with the cattle grazing, invasive species like reed canarygrass and cattail and bulrush can’t become established at such as dense monoculture.”

A permanent conservation easement, funded by the North American Wetland Conservation Act, was put on the land. A grant from Nebraska Environmental Trust helped provide fencing and grazing infrastructure, and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission funded wetland restoration. All that cost-share reduced the expense to Shaw Farms.

Here’s another example of how good conservation practices improve land and water quality and provide habitat for wildlife.

Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. Made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.

Original broadcast: November 2015

Posted: November 15, 2015
Topics: Grazing Management, Landowner Stories, Playas