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By Frank J. Buchman

“When farmland is healthy, there is a balanced ecosystem with plenty of native plants and habitat for wildlife.”  

This is called biodiversity, and all landowners can do something to improve it, according to Jo Ann Baumgarten of Wild Farm Alliance. 

“When there’s a lot of biodiversity, the benefits are many,” she emphasized. 

Farmers can attract pollinators that help pollinate their crops, and they can attract beneficial insects that help to control pest insects.  

There are beneficial birds that eat pest insects, weed seeds, and even rodents. Bats eat insects, and four-footed creatures eat rodents. 

“Before you can make any adaptations to your land, however, you have to know what’s already there,” said Baumgarten. “Determine what’s working in your favor and what isn’t. 

“First, you need to look at the climate, the drainage, and soil conditions. If there are problem areas like erosion and invasive species, they should be dealt with first,” Baumgarten explained.  

“One of the best things to do is to go someplace wild nearby, look at what’s growing there, and then try to emulate that.” 

Extension services, resource conservation districts, and other groups can offer technical assistance to get started. “There are several agencies and organizations that have cost-share programs to help you pay for improvements,” Baumgarten said. 

“Once everything’s in place, monitor the area to determine if your farm and surrounding areas are benefiting from your efforts.”  

Public hunting opportunities for game birds such as pheasant and quail are diminishing.  

“Building a game bird preserve on land could be a lucrative business since it’s getting harder to find public hunting grounds,” Baumgarten said. “This is leading to an increased interest in private hunting preserves, and landowners are taking notice.”  

Dan Burden is a value-added ag program coordinator with Iowa State University Extension. He’s also written a guide for game bird preserve business development. 

“Best candidates for this venture are those with a bird hunting background who enjoy the outdoors, dogs, and people,” Burden said. 

 It’s common to take cropland out of production and to designate the area as a preserve. However, Burden said to remember that the habitat you create is about cover for birds and dogs. 

“The very simplest thing would be to just plant it to switchgrass or something similar,” he said. “What’s way better to manage the property for wildlife with shelterbelts, cover, plantings, and food plots with nice terrain to hunt.” 

Game birds can be raised on your farm, but Burden said most preserve owners buy them from regional suppliers. Mature birds are kept in flight pens and then are released as needed. 

Before you open the gates, decide how many people you will allow in a hunting party at any given time. Hold safety briefings and check certificates for hunter safety training. Growing the business depends on selling memberships and renewals.  

“One tip for success is to cater more to the hunter’s dogs than the hunters themselves,” Burden said.  

“Good preserve operators have water out in the fields, or pails of water to make sure dogs stay hydrated,” said Burden. “Early in the year that’s very important. Your good game preserve operators are going to really cater to the needs of the dog owner.” 

One of the biggest challenges for wild ducks is finding suitable habitat. Ducks need grasslands and wetlands to successfully nest and raise their brood.  

Jennifer Kross of Ducks Unlimited said ducks require the two habitats during the breeding part of their life cycle. 

“They’re using the grasslands for nesting, and then when the ducklings hatch, they don’t stay in the nest very long. As soon as their feathers are dry, they go straight to a wetland,” said Kross. “That’s where they’re finding the seeds that they eat from the plants. 

“They’re also eating all kinds of aquatic insects and bugs in those wetlands. They use that for feather growth and to develop so they can survive and migrate back south for the winter.” 

Based on their nesting habitat preferences, ducks are grouped into three categories: overwater-nesting species, upland-nesting species, and cavity-nesting species. Some species will nest in more than one type of habitat.  

For example, mallard ducks mostly set up housekeeping in grassland cover. But they’re also known to use artificial nesting structures and even the occasional backyard flowerpot. 

Kross said farmers can start providing duck habitat by managing grasses. 

“Some farmers have a regimen where they’ll go in and hay it outside of the breeding time. They also do wetland restoration,” she said. “If there’s an area where a wetland’s been drained, plugging that drain will let the water come in.” 

Federal programs and conservation organizations offer technical and financial assistance to landowners for providing duck habitat. 

A huge brush can provide shelter and quality habitat for small animals and birds.  

Wildlife biologist Scott Shalaway said it’s fine to toss trees and other herbaceous materials in a heap and call it good. “If you really want to cater to the critters, start with a foundation of concrete blocks and PVC pipe,” Shalaway encouraged. 

“That provides little tunnels and escape avenues for small mammals and reptiles,” said Shalaway. “After that, put a cover on the mound to prevent the pile from getting waterlogged and offering protection in snow.” 

CUTLINE 

Farmers can often easily develop habitats benefitting wildlife and gamebirds while enhancing the operation’s biodiversity.