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Heartland Outdoors

Pondering grass, pollinators and gamebirds

Thu, July 06, 2017

By STEVE CLARK
It seems like I spent most of March and April and half of May preparing my Conservation Reserve Program (CRP)  ground for the spring planting of wild prairie flowers and prairie grass for the Pollinator Program.

I had to make the transition or do without CRP, as it was the only program available to me after my existing contract expired. Twenty one years ago, when I first signed up for CRP, I planted timothy, red top and lespedeza. It was called the quail mix and it worked well for all of those years, providing feed, cover and nesting for game birds and other wildlife.

That mix was fairly easy to plant on crop ground since there was no tree sprouts or sod to contend with. I disked the soil a little and planted it. It has been a great place to hunt and it also provided me with an annual income. I maintained it by chopping sprouts, mowing walk trails and mowing certain portions on an alternating basis but never taking it all down at once.

After all, it’s supposed to be wildlife habitat. Right?

Being that you’re not supposed to let the inevitable tree sprouts take over, I controlled them as well as I could without disturbing the wildlife too badly. The tree sprouts always come back. The trick is to not let them get too big or you may get called on it by the local soil conservation folks, if they notice it. Well, I tried to keep everyone happy. The quail, the pheasants, the deer, myself and other hunters and the bureaucrats.

Now it was time to tear it all down and start over, which just didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Prairie grass and wild flowers had already found their way into the old CRP along with many other plants that are beneficial to wildlife. The birds and the bees were already happy out there, but it had to go in order to be eligible for government payments.

The soil conservation office wanted me to use Roundup to kill the vegetation. I told them that would not be possible since I have an organic farm, so they said I could do a prescribed burn. After chopping sprouts last fall in preparation for this spring’s planting, a lot of the ground was cut short and didn’t burn as well as the taller grass that didn’t get mowed.

This was also a wet spring and some didn’t burnt at all. So I chopped it as low I could go and disked the hell out of all of it. I felt reasonably sure I had made the ground suitable for the new seed. After tearing up my old bush hog and breaking several disk blades on tree roots and small stumps, I had exposed a lot of soil.

After spending several thousand dollars on prairie grass and flower seed and many hours of labor, I was ready to plant. I rented a no-till drill from Quail Forever in Christian County, which required 60 miles to go get it and another 60 to return it.

But the drill worked great and my thanks goes to Larry Laker and Quail Forever in Taylorville, who were very accommodating.

The planting deadline was June 5, and I was finally done on May 28 – right about when the rain stopped. Through the first part of June, the sun shone bright and hot and the soil became very dry. I could see the little flower plants struggling for lack of moisture and they had not even had a good dew on them. I was starting to worry.

It all seemed reminiscent of the drought of 2012. But it was just more unpredictable Illinois weather. We finally got a good rain around June 12 and now I can see the flower plants getting larger and stronger. The rain also gave the weeds and sprouts a boost and they are starting to crowd over the flowers.

Time to chop again, this time as high as it will raise up above the new plants to knock the tops off of weeds to allow sunlight in. Mowing to establish. More gas, more time and expense but by God, after all of this, I want to see prairie flowers!

While I’m out there on the tractor I’m thinking, only the white man would eliminate the seemingly endless tall grass prairie and then sell it back to you.

I had six acres of expired CRP that I didn’t sign back up and needed to chop over to get it in shape for pasture and hay. I wasn’t out there 20 minutes when I flushed a magnificent hen turkey. She wouldn’t leave the area so I figured she must have a nest in there.

Soon after I raised a big doe and she wouldn’t leave either. It was obvious that there was a fawn somewhere close and probably young turkeys or eggs in there too. I shut off the mower, went to the other end of the field and drove around a bit testing it for nests and fawns. I didn’t see anything so I mowed that end of the field without incident and left the other end to be mowed later in the season.

It’s no fun to chop up fawns. It happened to me once before and I try to avoid it if all possible.

Now it was time to get into the overgrown hay fields and start mowing. I knew that after taking away all of the CRP cover, there would be more game birds than usual nesting in harm’s way but I couldn’t put off making hay and I dreaded it. I had read somewhere that if you start mowing in the middle of the field and work your way out, the game has a better chance of escaping the mower. I decided I would have to try it.

I could see a lot of young pheasants about the size of quail continually flying and lighting, barely able to fly. I stopped several times to avoid hitting them. But at least I could see them. They were reluctant to leave the grass, but I was herding them in the right direction. Off to the sides. It was working. I know I saved more than I killed. I killed one rabbit that I know of that day and no fawns.

Now that I’ve just about given up on bird hunting, my old passion, it seems I’m seeing and hearing more than I have for awhile. My old bird dog is going blind and deaf and I have recently turned down a couple of pretty good offers on setter pups. My place has birds but I’ve lost most of my other old hunting grounds for one reason or another but that’s OK.

I enjoy seeing them and hearing them and probably work just as hard to provide habitat as I ever did. Quail come right up in my yard and whistle. I find that very gratifying. The other thing I notice is that every time I start up one of my old Farmalls and head out to maintain grass or cut hay, the barn swallows come to the sound of my tractor even before I ever start mowing. They know I will raise a lot of flying insects for them to feed on.

They will circle the moving tractor all day long, swooping and diving, sometimes 20 or 30 at a time. Their expert maneuvers are fun to watch and it kind of breaks up the monotony. It also reinforces the truth that insects are essential to bird life. Game or otherwise. I don’t have a need to use any pesticides on farm that’s all grass and timber and would probably hesitant to use it if I did have a need.

Anyway, if you’re a landowner and have grass to mow periodically and you’re concerned about saving game birds and other wildlife and for some reason it can’t wait till after the nesting season – after Aug. 1 is usually a safe bet – be aware of female birds and deer that are reluctant to leave the area and start your mowing in the middle of the field. Then work your way out to the field edges. I think you will save a lot of wildlife this way.

Comments

This is great, thank you for sharing.  I am anxious to see the benefits from the pollinator program; it is really a step in the right direction for wildlife.

Posted by Katie for Conservation on July 17

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