The Nonfarmable Acres
There are many ways to increase habitat without decreasing yield. On our farm we start by getting the most out of grass waterways, damaged acres, and creek banks.
Many farmers mow grass waterways after harvest. They do this so the farm doesn’t look ratty through the winter and so trees don’t start to grow in troublesome locations. It can be difficult to get a farmer to not mow anything at all, so start with the waterways that can’t be seen from the road that farmers won’t care as much about. Also, offer to go through and clip small trees out of the waterways, this will lower the farmer’s level of concern over trees getting out of control. Wintertime grass waterways are an easy way to increase the pheasant habitat without cutting down on farming acres.
Low-Yield Locations Next, try to understand the layout of the farm from a farmer’s perspective. Not all farmland is created equal. Talk with the farmer to figure out the areas that won’t produce well. On our farm we leave certain small plots of corn and beans standing that have flood damage and aren’t likely to yield well. Corn provides food for deer, and protection for pheasants, through the winter. Soy beans can provide food as well. In the spring the farmer can still go back and harvest these plots quickly. Many fields have side-hills with springs that cause crops to grow very poorly, ask about these locations too. Start by biting off small areas that are already overgrown, maybe next year you will be able to plant a full plot.
Streams and Terraces
Over the past two years we have been planting saplings from the Iowa State Nursery. The swamp oaks, dogwoods, and cedars have done surprisingly well. The Jack Pines struggled even with adequate water and protection from deer. My brother and I have planted the majority of our trees along creeks that were cleared of trees in the past. There is more room for trees to grow than you would expect, and again, this does not cut down on farmable acres. Planting something along the top of a terrace is another good option. My neighbor planted a line of mulberry bushes along the top of a terrace, and now a cubby of quail spends a lot of time in these bushes. I watched a bobcat sneak through them two seasons ago.
Look for spots where the mowing could be lessened, farmland that is performing poorly, and streams that have been cleared of trees. If you are working with a farmer who doesn’t consider himself a hunter or environmentalist, starting small. Utilizing unused sections is the best way to go. Perhaps in the years to come their attitude will change and you will gain access to more opportunities.