Creating Habitat on Farms

By Brian DeVore

Illustration: ©Warren Gebert/Laughing Stock

I sat in a darkened conference room on a June afternoon in 1996. Along with agronomists, engineers, and others participating in something called the International Precision Agriculture Conference, I watched a video of a John Deere 7800 tractor rolling along a California test plot. The man sitting in the tractor’s seat threw up his hands to show he wasn’t driving. Instead, four global positioning satellite (GPS) receivers mounted on top of the cab were using signals from space to guide the machine’s journey back and forth across the field.

“We think this is the first step toward totally automatic farm implements,” crowed a Stanford researcher while the tape was rolling. Indeed, while thumbing through a farm magazine four years later, I spied a photo of a John Deere tractor pulling a sprayer. It caught my attention because there was no seat or steering wheel on the tractor—it was a prototype of a GPS-guided driverless field implement.

Such technology proves that the importance of knowing the land intimately has not been lost on the boosters of industrial agriculture. Their response has been the development of technologies that break the land down into electronic bits and bytes. The farmer can then use that information to apply more (or less) fertilizer here or to justify the cost of draining a piece of soggy ground there.

After watching the video of the satellite-guided tractor, I telephoned David Podoll, a farmer in southeastern North Dakota. By closely observing ecological relationships on his land, Podoll has developed, among other things, a natural weed control system. I asked him if he thought such “precision farming” could ever bring about a more environmentally benign form of agriculture. To him, the question was a no-brainer. For one thing, the data being fed into those high-powered computers was pretty superficial from a farmer’s point of view. A satellite couldn’t provide insights into the intricate ecological relationships between a weed, a fungus, and an insect. Being aware of the corn yield and maybe even the amount of fertility contained in a square meter of soil is not the same as knowing the amount of healthy bacterial activity that’s taking place.

Podoll is part of a growing movement of sustainable agriculture farmers who are getting off their tractors, taking a close look at their land, and making management decisions based on what they observe, rather than on conventional agricultural thinking. Because of its emphasis on working in harmony with ecological systems, sustainable agriculture is becoming recognized by natural resource professionals as a way to deal with vexing environmental problems on vast tracts of land in North America. Farmers and ranchers own and manage 50 percent of the land area in the U.S. Ecologists hoping to have positive impacts in agricultural areas have to develop a rapport with farmers and the land they are working.

One example of how such relationships can develop and in turn bring about positive change is the Monitoring Team, a unique collaboration of farmers, university researchers, natural resource agency personnel, and nonprofit staff. Launched in 1993, the Monitoring Team was coordinated by the Land Stewardship Project, a nonprofit sustainable agriculture organization, and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, which is affiliated with the University of Minnesota.

By the time it wrapped up in 1997, the team had become a model for how natural resource practitioners and farmers can work together to create habitat on farms. The 26 members had created a set of sustainability indicators and distilled them down into a field resource called the Monitoring Tool Box. The toolbox is now being used throughout North America and around the world, and the team’s work is even influencing agricultural policy. But it all started out with just six farm families in Minnesota who wanted to know what impact they were having on the land and its wild inhabitants.

Canaries in the Fields

One summer afternoon, I sat in the back of an aging Chevy Suburban truck as it bounced along a fence-line, its occupants blurting out the names of birds flitting about in a nearby pasture.

“Flycatcher!”

“Grackles!”

“Eastern kingbirds!”

“What’s that? A savannah sparrow?”

“No, it’s a fence tightener,” announced one of the birders with a laugh after a quick check with the binoculars.

This wasn’t a group of urban ornithologists talking excitedly about the difference between a songbird and a hand-sized piece of ratcheted steel. This time, farmers were the ones packing the binoculars and field guides on a tour of a farm in southern Minnesota. They were being given a mini-course on the feathered residents by Art “Tex” Hawkins, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist, and Art Thicke, a dairy farmer who has made birding a part of his livestock chore routine.

Both men are founding members of the Monitoring Team. Their enthusiasm for birds is infectious, and it’s easy to see why birding became one of the team’s most popular monitoring tools. It’s user-friendly and can put the development of sustainable management techniques in the hands of the farmers themselves. Because it can be worked into livestock chores like moving cattle and fixing fences, birding is a handy way for gauging some of the impacts a farmer is having on the land. It’s also more pleasant than grubbing up soil samples.

How certain monitoring activities rate on the “fun scale” while fitting into daily farm activities is not trivial. During the mid-1990s, John Doran, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist based at the University of Nebraska, tried to develop a comprehensive soil quality testing kit for farmers. The kit contained resources for testing, among other things, soil respiration, infiltration capacity, bulk density, acidity levels, nitrate levels, electric conductivity, and compaction. Taken together, all of these indicators should give farmers an excellent idea of how their farming practices are affecting the biological health of the soil. But when, as a dry run, Doran sent the kit out to a few innovative farmers who were trying various sustainable practices, he was disappointed in how they used it. The farmers reported back that they simply didn’t have time to fit the kit into their routine, Doran told me.

Some farmers were overwhelmed by all the tests that could be done and simply picked and chose indicators at random as if they were grabbing different-sized wrenches out of a tool box. Such selective use of the kit may have helped the farmers determine, for example, if their soils were short on nitrogen or too acidic, but it didn’t give an overall picture of soil quality. That’s why one no-till farmer in Illinois was able to use the kit to reaffirm his belief that his intensive use of chemicals was good for the soil. Doran’s experience with the soil quality testing kit reinforced his belief that to be truly useful for farmers and scientists, monitoring systems must give qualitative measures—sights, sounds, and smells—the same weight as their quantitative counterparts—hard numbers on pH and nutrient levels, etc.

Dickcissels (Spiza americana) and vesper sparrows (Pooecetes gramineus) aren’t the end-all indicators of how a farm is doing ecologically, but their presence or absence tells a big-picture story that’s hard to fudge. Wildlife biologists consider grassland bird species to be good biological barometers in farm country because they respond so quickly to changes in land use—bad and good—according to Hawkins.

That’s why it’s so exciting that by the third year of the monitoring initiative, bird sightings and activities were among the first items farmers mentioned during their monthly reports. When they got together for meetings or field days, farmers were not bragging about their corn yields, milk production, or even improvements in soil structure. Instead, they were quick to let each other know about the number of successful bluebird (Sialia sialis) or bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) nestings they had witnessed on the land.

As they became more aware of the bird life on their farms (and began enjoying the birds more), the farmers took the next step: they started wondering what impacts their livelihoods were having on the life cycles of their feathered neighbors. At team meetings, the farmers began discussing with Hawkins concerns they had about nesting disruptions caused by haying, pasture clipping (a method for keeping the grass more palatable for livestock), and even grazing. Although several of the farmers observed that cattle were sometimes able to graze a paddock with an active nest in it without destroying the nest eggs or nestlings, the results weren’t always as positive when it came to mechanical forage harvesting.

It became clear that the hay fields and managed pastures were in danger of becoming avian “population sinks,” or booby traps, rather than “population sources.” As a result, several farmers reduced or delayed pasture clipping to allow fledglings to achieve some level of mobility before the mower disrupted the nests. Beef producer Mike Rupprecht did not clip any of his paddocks one year. It didn’t appear to have any negative effect on the productivity of the pastures or beef cow herd, and he and his wife Jennifer observed a number of male dickcissels using taller plants in their pastures as singing perches. Thicke also eliminated clipping on some of his paddocks one year and by the fourth grazing, he said, “You couldn’t tell where you clipped and where you didn’t.” In other words, despite the lack of clipping, the cows still found the grass palatable.

One of the management techniques that has the farmers most excited about improving grassland species nesting success is the establishment of rest areas within their managed grazing paddock systems. This is the grass farmer’s version of leaving a piece of land idle for part of a season, allowing the vegetation to grow undisturbed by grazing. In 1995, each farm held one paddock out of grazing from the beginning of the season until at least the end of July (most farmers on the Monitoring Team had 20 to 30 fenced paddocks).

The densely vegetated rest areas provide a place for birds to nest undisturbed by cattle or machines. They also allow birds disturbed in adjoining paddocks to retreat to the lush cover and re-nest. Farmers noticed greater concentrations of bobolinks and dickcissels in the rest areas during the first year of the experiment. A search of a rest paddock on the Rupprecht farm in 1996 confirmed a successful bobolink re-nesting. By the end of the nesting season in late July of that year, Art Thicke and his wife Jean saw more than sixty bobolinks, some of which were fledglings, flocking together on their farm.

In addition, the rested paddocks give grass and legume seeds an opportunity to mature so they can re-seed either directly or through the livestock. Allowing the grasses and legumes to grow for a longer period also increases the root structure of the plants, thus improving soil structure.

The term “win-win” is much used and abused these days, but that’s what we seem to have here. Because these rest areas are showing a benefit not only for wildlife but also for pasture productivity, these are management practices that benefit the farm financially, as well as improve the environment.

If the farmers had been told right out of the gate that their farming methods were threatening grassland bird species, defenses would have gone up, reducing opportunities for even minor management changes to have occurred. Even farmers who have made the transition into more environmentally sustainable methods, such as these had, aren’t going to welcome outright criticism of their production system. But monitoring took them through a process that started with newfound knowledge and ended with appreciation and action.

Grazing Streambanks

One brilliant fall day I found myself stumbling after Larry Gates and Ralph Lentz as they hiked along a short section of Sugarloaf Creek in southeast Minnesota. This section of the stream had grass-covered banks with a gentle slope to them. The channel was deep, and there were overhanging areas at the water’s edge, perfect habitat for fish and other creek residents. The two men headed downstream, and Gates kicked up a leopard frog, an increasingly rare sight in farm country. Then a tiny shrew tore itself free of the overhanging grass and dropped into the creek. In a burst of panicky energy, it motored the few feet of water to the other side and scrambled up the grass-covered bank.

To put an exclamation point on the stream’s already excellent bill of health, Gates squatted next to the fast running water and scooped up a handful of the creek bed. He cracked a smile as the water drained through his fingers, leaving a mound of clean gravel. The presence of relatively silt-free alluvial material was a sign that little erosion was coming off the pastures adjacent to the creek. It was also an indication that the current was running fast enough to cleanse itself of excess silt.

This is a far cry from the kind of waterways often found in farm country: wide, sloppy creeks filled to the brim with chocolate braids of silt-carrying water. Constantly sloughing cliff-like banks devoid of vegetation make it almost impossible to stroll down to the channel for a closer look at the state of things.

Sugarloaf Creek’s good health is due in large part to a strategy that utilizes cattle—long considered the enemies of healthy watersheds—to improve the stability of the streambank. Gates is a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) watershed coordinator. Lentz is a farmer. Both are founding members of the Monitoring Team. The stretch of Sugarloaf that looked so good on this particular day winds through Lentz’s 65 hectares before flowing another three miles to the Mississippi River.

More than three decades ago, Lentz approached technicians in the local Soil Conservation Service office (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) about creating a conservation plan for his portion of Sugarloaf Creek. What they suggested was the standard recommendation of the time: fence the stream off, plant trees and, most of all, keep the cattle out.

So in 1967, Lentz fenced off one and one-half hectares along the stream, planted spruce, pine, cedar, and white ash, and sat back to watch what would happen, convinced he had done the right thing. In fact, the farmer’s initial plan was to fence off the entire creek where it ran through his property, creating a permanent riparian strip along both sides of the stream. He grazes approximately forty hectares and doesn’t really need the forage found next to the stream to make his cow-calf operation pencil out economically.

But things get busy on the farm, and Lentz never got around to building more fence. Lentz didn’t know this in 1967, but by not fencing off the whole stream, he had created a perfect laboratory for comparing different land uses on a stretch of creek roughly half a kilometer long. By 1989, his makeshift demonstration plot began telling an interesting tale.

I’ve been to the Lentz farm several times over the years and never fail to be amazed at the contrasts present on this stretch of Sugarloaf. The fenced-off area, now heavily forested, is host to a wide, shallow stream with erosion-prone banks. It’s almost impossible to wade through the sunless stretch because of the mucked up bottom. The trees have grown so well that they’ve shaded out the grasses and other undergrowth that hold soil together.

And, as I described before, the section right above the fenced-off area, where Lentz retarded succession by allowing cattle to periodically graze, is a scene right out of a trout angler’s dream. It’s difficult to overstate just how much the creek changes just within a matter of a few meters.

“I was very surprised to see the fenced off area deteriorating,” recalled Lentz recently. “What I had been taught was not what I was seeing.”

He became convinced that simply planting trees along a streambank was not the answer. In fact, Lentz began to believe that in some cases allowing cattle to graze along a stream on a limited basis could improve the waterway considerably by opening it up to more diversity of plant life.

The farmer had a hard time getting people—especially natural resource professionals—to listen to him. It wasn’t like he was claiming that trees were bad for streambanks and that livestock should be allowed to run amok in our floodplains. Lentz just wanted people to take a second look at the “creeks and cattle never mix” mind-set. At first, Gates was skeptical as well, but he was pleased that the farmer was willing to consult him.

In fact, what Gates saw at the Lentz farm fit with observations he was beginning to gather in other parts of southern Minnesota at that time: sometimes, controlled grazing of a stream-bank helped, not hindered, its stability. It’s based on the idea that cattle hooves can be used to create a disturbance in an area for a short period of time—no more than a few days. The ground may look like it was hit by a mud-filled Mack truck immediately after the cattle leave, but it also creates a nutrient-rich environment for new growth to take place.

All that intense impact can also break down the edges of a sharp streambank, creating a gentler slope for plants to establish themselves. Using short-term livestock disturbance to rehabilitate an area works nicely with the management-intensive rotational grazing system Lentz has been using to produce beef since the late 1980s. Lentz reasons that since the animals only stay in the same paddock for a few days at the most, why not make part of a streambank in need of disturbance one of those grazed paddocks?

Neither Gates nor Lentz are claiming that grazing is the cure-all for what ails a waterway. In fact, they point out several examples of stream-banks in farm country that have been improved considerably with the planting of trees and the exclusion of livestock.

Gates feels strongly that if Lentz were tied into one way of raising cattle—an expensive, high-tech total confinement system that left little room for observing and reacting to those observations, for example, he would be limited in how he could manage other aspects of his operation, including the waterway.

“The important thing here is Ralph observes. Ralph could identify fifty plants on his own farm,” said Gates one day while sipping coffee on Lentz’s back porch, which sits just a hundred meters or so from the banks of Sugarloaf Creek. “He also understands you don’t just look at something for one year and draw your conclusions.”

When Farmers Shut Off Their Machinery

The idea of making close observation a key component of farm management isn’t just a phenomenon involving southern Minnesota livestock producers. Over the years, I’ve been on farms representing a myriad of geographical locations and production systems that are proving that shutting off the engine and walking the fields can illuminate nature-based solutions to problems that conventional farming tries to bludgeon into submission with chemicals, machinery, drugs, and all the other trappings of industrial agriculture.

For example, remember David Podoll, the North Dakota farmer who didn’t think much of satellite-based precision agriculture? The Canada thistles (Cirsium arvense) on his operation aren’t looking so good these days. These prickly weeds are being wracked by one disease that leaves a “rust” on the plant and another that attacks the roots. To top it off, the painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) likes to lay its eggs in the thistle’s flowering head. When the larvae hatch, they munch their way out, pretty much shredding what’s left of the already ravaged host.

The result is a natural weed control system that no amount of spraying or mowing could accomplish. So what does the farmer do when he sees Canada thistle plants in the uncultivated margins next to his 200 hectares of small grains and pasture?

He leaves them.

Podoll explained to me that his thistle control program relies on a natural repository of disease and weeds. One grand, expensive weed eradication campaign might eliminate all the thistles temporarily, but it would also destroy a natural source of future control. Thistle rust and the painted lady butterfly need places to overwinter. Destroying their host would be like lighting a match to a formula for a really good weed killer. That’s why Podoll purposely protects and encourages the establishment of ecological “edge” areas next to his fields—stands of trees, soggy sloughs, natural grass areas—that are not disturbed and thus provide a place for the Canada thistle—and its enemies—to spend the snowy months. How, I once asked the farmer, did you ever figure out this fine balance between weed control and ecological protection?

Podoll’s answer was simple: “You just watch.”

That’s a significant statement. Few of Podoll’s farming contemporaries even cast a sidelong glance at the ecological workings of their fields, let alone take the time to “watch.” I’ve talked to extension educators who recommend applications of nitrogen fertilizer or a certain type of pesticide, regardless of the state of the soil’s fertility or how many plant-eating bugs are present. Farmers, scrambling to manage more acres and bigger livestock herds—often while working off the farm to make ends meet—take such advice and run. Such a harried way of managing makes it difficult to notice if one “solution” is creating many other problems that require even more stopgap measures.

But Podoll, the Monitoring Team members, and a growing group of sustainable agriculture farmers are learning that often the most valuable assistance is not available through extension agents, how-to manuals, input suppliers, or any of the other conventional sources of agricultural production information. Instead, they are increasingly relying on their own senses to gather the data needed to make sustainable farming decisions.

What many of these farmers are discovering is that the next step after close observation is accepting that natural processes work best when disturbed as little as possible. The result can be farms that are ecological treasures, as well as generators of a good standard of living. And that is what sustainable farming is all about. Ecologically sustainable farms of the future will be populated with people who have open eyes—and open minds.

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