Nearly 20 years of yield-monitor maps have helped David McCutchan pinpoint places to potentially increase production on his northeast Missouri farm.
That same data has also helped him determine what acreage to take out of production and put to work for wildlife instead.
He’s not alone. The challenging agriculture economy coupled with the availability of government cost-share programs have increased interest in conservation practices such as field borders, buffer strips and habitat plots that help make farms more profitable while also improving the land for wildlife.
“Farm productivity is getting to be less about total bushels produced and more about the efficiency of producing them,” said Matt Hill, MFA Incorporated precision agronomy manager. “If growers can identify unproductive acres and reduce the cost of inputs, that could help increase the overall profitability of the entire farm. What’s more, there’s opportunity to not just fallow those acres but to install conservation practices that could provide cost-share funds and increase the return on investment.”
The desire to boost quail populations on his Lewis County farm prompted McCutchan to establish some 20 acres of wildlife-friendly field borders along the edges of his corn and soybean fields. He used his yield maps to determine some of the least-productive areas and enrolled them in the CP33 “Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds” program, administered by the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
The program provides cost-share funds to help establish the buffers, which must be 30 to 120 feet wide. McCutchan planted a quail-conducive mixture of warm-season grasses, legumes and forbs. There’s also a per-acre annual payment for the span of his 10-year contract.
“With this program, there’s income, and then there’s wildlife,” McCutchan said. “First of all, I’m not losing money on those field edges because the inputs, by far, cost more than what they return. With the cost-share, we’re not spending a lot money to get the plots established, and then you get paid throughout the contract. And I like to quail hunt, so that’s a bonus.”
An active member of the Ten Rivers Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever chapter, McCutchan said quail numbers have dwindled over the past 10 to 15 years, mainly due to habitat loss. Buffers around field edges benefit the birds by providing food, nesting habitat and protection from predators and harsh weather. Edge feathering of nearby trees and shrub plantings also enhance the habitat.
“In my lifetime, the quail population has definitely declined,” McCutchan said. “I graduated from high school in 1986, and back then you could go out after school and kill your limit of quail—if you had a good dog and could shoot. Hunting is a lot more work now. A lot has changed, and it takes time to correct some of the things we’ve done.”
The 51-year-old producer, who raises 4,000 acres of row crops with his son, Cole, near Monticello, Mo., said he believes conservation efforts are making difference both on his farm and throughout the Midwest.
“People have been talking more and more about seeing pairs of quail and coveys in this area and even north of us,” McCutchan said, standing in a 30-foot wide buffer planted last April on one of his rented farms. “There was only one small covey here before, but I’m pretty sure there are two pretty good-size coveys now. Once this cover comes in good, it should help them a bunch.”
McCutchan participates in MFA’s Nutri-Track precision program and said the “yield by soil type” reports he receives are especially helpful in showing current or prospective landlords what they can expect from his production and conservation practices. Most of his buffers are placed in fields he rents from absentee landowners who expect income from their renter but also enjoy seeing more wildlife on their property.
“I act as the go-between with Missouri Department of Conservation and the landowners to introduce them to the practice,” McCutchan said. “The cost-share is a good incentive to do it. They still get paid, I don’t lose money farming against the trees, and it makes it easier for them to hunt.”
Benefits beyond wildlife
In addition to working for wildlife, conservation practices such as habitat buffers and field borders also help control erosion and runoff. Steve Jackson has experienced those benefits on his farm near Cardwell in Missouri’s Bootheel, where he raises 1,250 acres of row crops in furrow-irrigated fields. Jackson has exclusively used no-till practices since 1996 to help keep the farm’s sandy soil in place. He mainly grew cotton until about six years ago, when low prices and disease pressure prompted him to switch to corn and soybeans.
Over the past four years, he has added cover crops on all his acreage with cost-share assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). To benefit wildlife, he also has established several miles of field borders through the CSP and CRP.
Though the environmental benefits are undeniable, he has more personal reasons to improve wildlife habitat on his farm.
“I grew up quail hunting with an English setter named Jake,” Jackson said. “Now, I have a grandson named Jake, and I want to take him on a good quail hunt before I die. He’s 9, so I need to get things going!”
Jackson worked with Missouri Department of Conservation planners to help choose the programs and locations that would work best on his farm. Like McCutchan, the southeast Missouri farmer said he looked for unproductive areas—adjacent to woods or fencerows or in wet spots—to improve with wildlife habitat.
His efforts seem to be paying off, Jackson said. He saw several good coveys on his farm last year.
“These programs will help you pay for it, so why not do it?” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, if I can break even, and see more quail, then it’s worth it.”
For wildlife conservation to succeed, such partnerships with private landowners are critical, said Wes Buchheit, farm bill wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever.
“If we really want to have impact, it’s going to be on private land,” he said. “Where producers and landowners are creating habitat, we’re seeing response in the quail population and in other wildlife such as deer and turkey.”
While precision technology isn’t required to implement these conservation practices, data from yield monitors and grid sampling can give producers some added assurance, Buchheit said.
“Whenever you have data to help make those decisions, you can truly see the dollar signs and how things will weigh out,” he said. “You’ll benefit from having habitat in those poor-performing areas, and you can concentrate more on the productive acres with your farming operation. It makes the whole landscape more usable for wildlife. It’s win-win.”
MFA precision specialists can help producers interpret yield data and soil maps to identify areas that might be better suited for conservation than crops, MFA’s Matt Hill said. MFA will also have a natural resources conservation specialist on staff to serve as a liaison to the agencies that administer these programs. Hill formerly served in that role until becoming precision agronomy manager in October, and a replacement for the position will be hired soon.
“We can help point producers to programs and partnering agencies that fit their situation,” Hill explained. “And for those who participate in our Crop-Trak program, their consultant can be a real resource to identify places where conservation practices would work well.”
Although the CRP sign-ups are at a standstill right now in the absence of a new farm bill, farmers and landowners can enroll in other conservation programs to improve wildlife habitat in low-production areas. For example, Missouri Department of Conservation private land conservationists listed these as some of NRCS’s most popular practices:
• Access Control
• Forage and Biomass Planting
• Conservation Cover
• Contour Buffer Strips
• Critical Area Planting
• Field Border
• Riparian Forest Buffer
• Riparian Herbaceous Cover
“Farmers are looking for ways to make the most out of tight margins, and these may be opportunities to help make their acres more profitable,” Hill said. “Instead of continuing to pour input costs into them with little or no return, there’s a return on investment every year. Wildlife value may not drive your decisions, but it’s a great ancillary benefit that you can enjoy.”
For more information, contact your local MFA crop consultant, MDC private land conservationist, Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever biologist or conservation experts at your FSA or NRCS office.