Another Nest Egg

March 28, 2009 07:47 AM

From the air, the Prairie Pothole Region resembles a moonscape of craters and lakes. To waterfowl, it once looked like paradise.

Now, the grassland plains and rolling parklands that were once polka-dotted with wetlands are increasingly being converted to row-crop production. The transformation is having a profound impact on waterfowl, says Don Young, executive vice president of Ducks Unlimited (DU). "Every 1% decline in prairie or native grasslands is the equivalent of 25,000 fewer ducks,” he notes.

Many conservation efforts are under way to help build back duck populations, including protection of habitats through grassland easements and ownership. One of the most successful programs, however, involves incorporating winter wheat into the landscape.

Winter wheat creates a nesting habitat for waterfowl and other ground-nesting birds, Young says. DU research shows the density of hatched nests in winter wheat fields is 24 times greater than in spring wheat. Ducks that nest in winter wheat are 10 times more likely to successfully hatch a brood than in spring-seeded wheat.

Bayer CropScience and DU recently joined forces in a North American project called "Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action.” Bayer has committed $20 million during the next five years for research on new winter wheat varieties adapted to prairie climatic conditions. The goal is to promote agronomic practices and conduct waterfowl and environmental research to ensure a sustainable habitat and production system, which will be done through grower incentives, technical support and educational programs.

For the birds. Blake Vander Vorst, DU regional agronomist, says incentive programs have been successful in the past. "Growers see it as a way to add a crop into their rotation or
extend a rotation. They typically seed winter wheat into residue-managed standing canola, flax, oat or barley stubble for best results.” He adds that standing stubble needs to trap at least 2" of snow to ensure winter survival. A previous crop stubble height of 12" to 16" optimizes winter wheat survival.

"Our farmers generally seed more than twice what we give them incentives to seed. That's a good indication of how well they like winter wheat once they get used to it,” he says.

Winter wheat production has grown steadily on U.S. prairies until this year, more than doubling in North Dakota from 2006 to 2008. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that winter wheat plantings in South Dakota rose from 1.45 million acres in 2006 to 2.05 million acres in 2008 before falling to 1.75 million acres in 2009. Montana's producers boosted their acres by 10% during the same time period, and acreage is holding steady at approximately 2.5 million acres.

It was a DU incentive program that encouraged Todd Zahnow, of Raub, N.D., to plant winter wheat for the first time. The benefits of winter wheat have kept it in his rotation.

"I'm not a duck hunter,” Zahnow admits. "But I can tell we're not disturbing as many nests in winter wheat as we were in spring. Winter wheat spreads out my workload—although I do grow field peas and the timing can sometimes blend together.

"Winter wheat puts down a deeper root system, and that's good for the soil's organic matter,” he adds. The hefty yield increase is also a plus. Winter wheat—although lower in protein and usually lower in price than spring wheat—can yield 10% to 30% more than spring varieties. Zahnow says he's seen a 50% increase in yields compared with spring wheat this past year due to extreme drought conditions.

Young says that the aim of the DU program is not to replace all spring wheat. "We are hoping to develop winter wheat that has increased protein levels,” he says.

Alan Tracy, president of U.S. Wheat Associates, observes that it is up to individual farmers to decide what to plant on their ground. "But now that there are winter wheat varieties doing well farther north, it makes sense for many producers to use them to spread their seasonal workload and their weather risks,” he says. "To do so in a way that provides more cover for nesting ducks and other wildlife is simply good stewardship.”

You can e-mail Pam Smith at

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