Springfield — The USDA’s decision to open more than half of Illinois’ CRP acres for emergency haying and grazing may not be as awful for the state’s quail and pheasant populations as one might think.
Biologists tend to believe a little “dirt disturbance” now and then is good for conservation grasslands – not to mention the natural fertilizer that comes with it.
Besides, upland birds have worse things to worry about than grass-hungry cows on their turf.
“I think things started off very good and then became very bad for quail, mainly because of the heat we’ve had,” Mike Wefer, ag and grassland wildlife program manager for DNR, said. “Spring came early, and it was warm and sunny – perfect for production. Then came the heat, which can dry out eggs. It was a matter of timing for the birds.”
If quail were able to get their clutches off early, Wefer explained, then it’s possible the quail had a productive spring.
Aaron Kuehl, Illinois director of conservation programs for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, agreed with Wefer. Kuehl’s concern was whether or not chicks that did make it out of the nest were able to find enough insects to eat in the heat and drought.
“Here in Illinois we don’t have much experience with this kind of drought, so we’re keeping a close eye on how things develop,” he said. “The spring was nearly perfect for quail and pheasants, but things turned around quickly.”
Kuehl said he has heard from farmers and landowners that it appears plenty of quail broods do exist across the state, “but we will have to see how it plays out the rest of the summer,” he added.
Both Kuehl and Wefer feel as though pheasants are holding their own through the heat and drought.
“It’s a little disappointing because we had such a good start to the year,” Kuehl said.
The statewide January through March average temperature was 40.9 degrees, a full 9.1 degrees above normal, and the warmest January-March on record.
“The mild winter was beneficial, and, like quail, the spring was very good for pheasants,” Wefer said.
Hunters around the state were initially concerned when USDA officials, citing severe drought around the state, decided to open up CRP acreage that was previously off-limits for agricultural use.
Illinois Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Scherrie Giamanco announced in late July that additional drought relief for Illinois’ livestock producers would include the release of emergency haying and grazing for all Illinois counties for acres enrolled in CRP.
The authorization began Aug. 2.
“It’s not as big a deal because it’s after the primary nesting season,” Kuehl said. “For birds, there will be little impact this time of the year.”
Illinois’ CRP acreage currently stands at 1,030,778 acres, which is down 2,446 acres from what the state had in 2011. Many credit higher grain prices for motivating farmers to take land out of CRP and back into crop production.
The state this year did gain approximately 3,050 acres of CRP SAFE – a wildlife-specific CRP practice – established in the state’s quail range, mostly in southern Illinois.
Giamanco said emergency haying is available for farmers through Aug. 31. The USDA did put language in its emergency order that restricts the process. For example, participants must leave at least 50 percent of each CRP field unhayed for wildlife. All hay must be removed from the field by Aug. 31.
Emergency grazing is allowed through Sept. 30. The USDA is requiring participants to leave at least 25 percent of each CRP field ungrazed.
“Emergency haying and grazing is not allowed on the same acreage and only certain CRP practices are eligible,” Giamanco said.
Wefer said he and many of his colleagues believe quail and pheasants could actually benefit from cattle grazing on CRP land.
“Talking to biologist in other states, it seems we all agree the biggest problem with CRP acreage is that it’s not disturbed enough,” he said. “After a few years, CRP land loses it value to wildlife. Some grazing will mix things up a little.”