Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Making Hay and Losing Birds

As human population numbers have increased
in the U.S. and across the world, more and more pressure has been put on America's farm land -- the source of 15% of the world's cereal production.

The good news is that record crops are being produced despite the fact that less and less land is being put under the plow.

The bad news is that this increased production has required more automation, less fence-row cover, and more intensive management of farm habitat than ever before.

A good example of what is going on can be seen by taking a look at America's hayfields. While 40 years ago a hay field might have been harvested once a year, most hayfields are cut three times a year now, thanks to automation. The second and third hay harvests typically occur just as grassland birds are breeding. The result -- a tremendous decline in grassland breeding birds across the U.S. (PDF at link)

The number of hayfields in the U.S. is also in decline -- a direct consequence of fewer horses and fewer grass-fed beef cattle, and also a decline in grass-fed dairy production.

Today most cattle are fed and fattened on grain, which produces both greater milk yields and more rapid beef production. While consumers benefit, grassland bird populations are in general and rapid decline.


Beef Sup'Herb said...

I never thought about hay that way. What can we do to make sure to preserve grassland birds? Is there a time where we shouldn't take in the hay? I am pro Grass Fed Beef and from time to time work at our family ranch. What are your suggestions?

PBurns said...

Timing hay production can help, but it means less production as you will lose a cut, which is generally not economically feasible. For a very good article, see >> http://scnyat.cce.cornell.edu/grassland/pdf/Hayfields&Grassland_Birds.pdf

The next best thing to do is to leave ratty margins to your fields (15 feet or so). These wide areas along fence lines should only be mowed once a year in September, which is well past the time of nesting. These wide margins may result in double nesting of birds (two clutches).

Another simple thing to do is to always leave the corners of your fields uncut and wide -- when the rig turns, just sweep a bit wider and leave it fallow at the corner. That extra-wide area, along with a wide strip at the margins, may be enough to help quite a lot.


Beef Sup'Herb said...

It doesn't sound to hard to make some nesting available to the birds. I will have to talk to my family and see what we can do to have some space we only cut once a year then. Are those birds bringing any benefits to the farmer. If doing these things will in the end help the farmer, they would more likely be willing to look into all of that. Is there anything that you can tell me off hand. See our families ranch is certified organic, now if the birds are in some way helpful in organic farming that would be beautiful.


PBurns said...

Sadly, the birds have little economic value and do not vote. An organic designation simply means that pesticides and herbicides are not used; there are no points for creating habitat. Indeed, because organic farms already lose so much from bugs and weeds, they have to be particularly vigilant to keep deer and groundhog numbers down, and to keep production out. Some birds keep bugs numbers down, but in a hayfield, this is generally a pretty minimal benefit.