Corn, Pheasant Crops Hinge on Weather

Posted: 2/2/2010

Gary J. Duffy, Oldham, SD, Farmer

I enjoy seeing wildlife while working in my fields. I take steps to protect natural habitat. And I also happen to make farming my living. With hands-on experience and enjoyment of all three, I can say corn, conservation and wildlife can coexist.

Despite the claims of a recent National Wildlife Federation report drawing exaggerated and inconclusive lines between government incentives for corn-based ethanol and grassland bird populations, the healthy production of both corn and wildlife is dependent on one key ingredient: weather.

Corn and wildlife have a lot in common. Mother Nature has the overarching impact on the corn crop and the wildlife population in the state. And no two years are alike. In the case of corn and pheasants, 2009's cold, wet spring threatened the hatch as well as the ultimate corn harvest as farmers struggled to get seed in the ground.

And similar to the challenge weather conditions presented in harvesting the crop this past fall, the harsh winter we are experiencing undoubtedly will diminish the bird numbers in South Dakota as their cover and food sources are buried under snow and ice. We will have fewer pheasants this year because of the heavy snowfall we've experienced. But just like the corn still in the fields in some areas of South Dakota, it has nothing to do with the farmers' desire to make it happen.

Show me a corn field, and I'll show you wildlife habitat. Among the rows of corn, pheasants find shelter and food winter long. The National Wildlife Federation report compares corn planting and grassland bird populations between 2005 and 2007. Interestingly, 2005-2007 was among the highest pheasant populations in several key areas of South Dakota during a 10-year period. Corn plantings were up 9 percent in 2007 in South Dakota, and that was not the first time increased corn acres have paralleled increased pheasant numbers.

In fact, South Dakota pheasants are growing strong. According to the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks Department, 2009 had the fourth highest pheasants per mile count in the past 45 years. South Dakota has harvested more than 1 million pheasants each of the past 11 years and close to 2 million each of the past four years.

Loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres to corn production was cited in the report as a cause for decreased numbers of grassland birds. However, CRP is not the only area where wildlife take refuge. Hay fields, alfalfa, winter wheat, pastures and roadside ditches all provide cover for nesting.

More farmers also are leaving substantial residue in their fields, supporting comfortable habitat for wildlife. Across the state, tillage is being reduced, and food plots are being planted - even on land not enrolled in CRP.

Two sidebars in the National Wildlife Federation report suggest the biofuel requirements of the expanded renewable fuels standard will demand an additional 10.69 million acres of corn by 2015 over 2009 levels. Even the most conservative estimates of future yield growth, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual baseline projections, put average corn yields at almost 169 bushels per acre by 2015. South Dakota produced 177 million more bushels in 2009 on less than 1 percent more acres than in 2007.

Because of continued yield growth and additional crop switching, it is highly unlikely that native grassland will be converted to cropland as a result of increasing ethanol demand. This finding is supported by a recent analysis conducted by Air Improvement Resource, which concluded "neither forest nor pasture will be converted to crops as a result of the increase in the biofuel mandate to 15 (billion gallons per year) in 2015."

The most important commonality among wildlife and corn is this: Each in their own right is resilient, adaptive and resourceful in changing and challenging environments. Weather will play the largest role in both our corn and pheasant crop. And both are and always will be important to farmers and South Dakotans.


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