Conserving Playas “Puts Land to Its Best Use”

Larry Haynes of Holyoke, CO, is a proponent of putting land to its best use. In his case, that meant no longer farming through playas in crop fields and developing those wetlands into wildlife habitat to benefit autumn and winter hunting.

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Choosing the Right Cover Crop

Improving the health and quality of the soil can increase crop productivity, hence profitability, while benefitting wildlife and improving the environment. Planting cover crops — ground cover often consisting of a variety of plants — following harvest of the cash-crop, creates a forage base that can be utilized by the producer while increasing organic matter, soil nutrients and water infiltration.

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Soil Health Practices Benefit Playas

Buffered playa in Nebraska

Playa wetlands benefit from practices that result in good soil health. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says there are four principles to improving soil health: 1) keep soil covered as much as possible; 2) disturb the soil as little as possible; 3) keep plants growing throughout the year to feed the soil; and 4) diversify as much as possible using crop rotation and cover crops.

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Playa Health: The Importance of Buffers

Research indicates that a buffer surrounding a playa lake, consisting typically of native grasses and forbs, prevents migration of upland topsoil and farm chemicals into lowland wetlands such as playa lakes and rainwater basins. The buffers are important to rangeland playas, but are vital when playas are situated in fields under crop production.

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Playa Renovation on Jan Minton’s Ranch in Texas

Jan Minton’s ranch — the family operation she took over in Floyd County, Texas — had been “farmed to death,” she said, and two playas were in poor condition. Bill Johnson, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, developed a restoration plan that involved silt removal, playa repair, and a native grass and forbs plant buffer around the playas’ margins.

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Playa Sedimentation: Causes and Fixes

Playas are effective vectors for groundwater recharge and water filtration, but that assumes they’re in a healthy state. We can keep playas vital and functional by diverting topsoil runoff. Plant buffers around playas keep topsoil from clogging playas, and buffers filter chemicals from entering the groundwater.

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Playas Recharge the Aquifer

Playas not only supply surface water to recharge the Great Plains aquifers, the results of contemporary research indicate those ephemeral wetlands are the primary source of recharge. Recharge rates under playas are 10 to 100 times greater than surrounding uplands. Because playas offer a clear path to recharge the dwindling water supply in the Ogallala Aquifer, it’s important that playas be healthy for the recharge mechanism to work.

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Landowner Enrolls Lagoon in Wetlands Reserve Easement

Dave Hilfterty grows dryland winter wheat and irrigated corn in Perkins County, Nebraska. Dave had a challenge that was perfect for a Wetlands Reserve Easement. Amongst his five irrigation circles there’s a lagoon, which he got tired of trying to farm through.

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Wetlands Reserve Easement in Kansas

McPherson County landowner Dale Schmidt bought ground he intended to farm, but often it was too wet to plant or to harvest. He’s pleased he enrolled the land as a perpetual wetland easement. Schmidt and his NRCS District Conservationist Blake McLemore discuss the improvements made to the parcel.

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Playas Create Biodiversity

Some 200 species of birds and other animals owe their ability to survive in the High Plains landscape to the existence of playas. Learn what flora and fauna are found in and adjacent to playas and how they support the biannual bird migration through this region.

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