June on the Farm

June’s Grass, and Wetlands

In June the new life is at, or near peak growth. All the forages are way outpacing what the cattle can eat, although it won’t stay this way for long, so this stockpile of grass will be what fills in for the shortfall later in the season. On the goose front, the goslings have grown incredibly fast and are already half the size of their parents. There were typically more geese nesting in this area every year. Historically, essentially all the geese went to Canada and Alaska, and it was primarily ducks nesting here in the pot holes (Potholes is descriptive of the duck paradise that developed when the last ice age glaciers retreated and left a pock marked landscape of 100’s of thousands of wetlands). Now we have as many or more geese as ducks nesting. Nests are right down in the sloughs, up on old muskrat dens and high spots, and I’m always amazed that flooding from heavy spring or summer rains doesn’t seem to wreck the nesting success of the migratory birds. I suppose that the extra water spreads out more then it raises upwards.

There are a lot of upland birds that haven’t finished nesting, and with all my walking around pastures moving temporary fences every day I often come across nests. What was also amazing to me was the number of duck nests that were a fair distance from even the temporary wetlands of early summer, and up where pheasant or grouse nests usually are. Pintails and northern shovelers are both ducks that can build nests a considerable distance from water. I suppose that duck, and duck egg predators would like it better if all the ducks concentrated their nests in the wetlands, but being spread out makes for a long hike through a thick forage jungle to water, for those upland born duck tots.

While I walked back and forth reeling out and reeling back up temporary electric fence polywire, I would chase up nesting birds. Small bird nests were almost impossible to find, but larger game bird nests I often found and made a zig in the fence line to keep my cows away from the nest. I came to realize that the danger wasn’t cattle stepping on a nest, it was them eating down the cover the duck was using to avoid predator detection. It was a long shot and often when I checked the nest later it was still destroyed. I suppose that a little island of tall grass often gets checked out by predators.

Most of us get warm fuzzy feelings about lakes, streams, sloughs, baby ducks and geese, but one of the things that really gets human attention is when homes and businesses are damaged by floods. Back in time, as a hydrologist working with spring snow melt and heavy rain river flooding, I had to deal with floods that were largely man made. Probably the best example of man made flooding occurred in the 1980s and early ’90s where the media made a little fun about the neighboring Red River on the North Dakota and Minnesota border having a 100-year flood every couple of years. Granted a 100-year flood is a fiction, our best guess, and long odds events can happen multiple times in a short span. But what was happening here was that more severe floods, and more frequent floods, were happening out on what used to be the potholes and tallgrass prairie, because we no longer had much for potholes or tallgrass prairie.

Flood intensity once upon a time was reduced in part by the great soil structure and cover of the grasslands. Tall grass has a tangle of vegetation absorbing the driven rains energy and to a large degree holding water in place to be absorbed by the soil. This was soil where a froth of soil life had tunneled and fluffed it, allowing it to soak up water like a giant sponge. Today, instead of a sponge, we have mostly tilled land with exposed soil that disperses in heavy rain and creates a seal of muddy ooze where, with any significant slope, most water runs off in muddy rivulets, then ruts, and then gullies, ditches or tile lines.

Also, even worse than destroying the sponge has been man’s re-engineering nature’s wetland drainage. Where before man’s drainage, it may have taken weeks and months for surface runoff to navigate through all the sloughs, wet spots and potholes, after man’s drainage, the trip can be shortened to days and hours. Instead of a river handling the nearby runoff today and more distant runoff in a week or a month, we now have all that water wanting to go down the same river at the same time, and it doesn’t fit!

Helping the disappearance of duck habitat and the tallgrass prairie in my mind, has been the Farm Bill’s “farmer safety net.” (The Farm Bill that once used a hard to understand formula to make payments to commodity farmers, now uses a government backed insurance program.) This provision does provide farmer economic safety, and an enticement to grow corn and beans. This has led to the transitioning of the prairies to corn and beans—an under-the-radar American industry that is too big to let fail. I don’t begrudge crop farmers a safety net, but the one we got has let industrial corn and beans be the only game in town.

Because these grains have the government subsidy safety net, they have almost always been over produced. And because they have been over produced, the resulting steady supply and reasonable price lead to industry putting their chemists and such to work figuring out how to make a horrendous amount of our food, fuel, and consumables from them. And because our industries (including CAFOs and feedlots) are so locked into using these grains, these industries help lobby to keep the Farm Bill incentives. It is an endless cycle. To add insult to injury, corn and bean farmers ramped up their profits as corn ethanol and bean bio-diesel expansion caught fire from additional government subsidies and mandates. The bigger market and better profits for most of the corn and bean farmers and the Ag industry resulted in pedal to the metal conversion of grassland to cropland.

These eastern potholes and prairie grasslands have become endangered species. Since farmers arrived in this eastern tallgrass prairie more than 99 percent have been converted, essentially all to conventional grain farms. We know that grasslands are great for ecology. Great for the geese, deer, frogs, earthworms, raptors, robins, and rabbits. How about water, air, and carbon sequestering? Grasslands keep the soil from blowing or washing away, increases percolation and aquifer recharge, reduces flooding, and is our water treatment and one of our global carbon sinks. So we need to get past the idea that grasslands are only good for hunters, hikers, and cattlemen, and see that grasslands are necessary for you, me, and future generations. We worry about the disappearance of tropical rain forests in places like South America where they are the key to a functioning ecosystem, but we have our own wreck here at home. These prairies are our central source of diversity, environmental services, and contain the mechanisms that both protect life and make it worth living.

We have had satellites circling the earth for decades, monitoring our natural resources. One study using this land use data was done in 2013 by Chris Wright at South Dakota State, measuring grassland-to-cropland conversion in Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa and the Dakotas. He found that conversions of prairie to cropland during the period 2006 though 2011 equaled the peak rates of the 1920s and ’30s that led us to the dust bowl. It is estimated that 1.3 million acres of additional grasslands were converted to crops in these five states during this most recent period. Much of the same steeper and or sandier land after being plowed out in the 1930s drought, was planted back to grass because it became blatantly clear that it was climatically dangerous to take them out of grass in the first place! Our history lessons are quickly forgotten.

To me, even more tragic is a loss of the wetlands, victims of bigger badder machinery paired with the Farm Bill’s more grain motivation. Wetlands contain more than a third of the plant and animals on the U.S. endangered species list. And pothole prairies are the breeding ground for more than half of North America’s migratory waterfowl.

It is interesting that the Farm Bill also funds the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is tasked with, well, conservation of all things. So we have a big government program encouraging the destruction of grasslands and wetlands, and in the same wrapper a smaller program to protect grass and wet lands. Make sense to you?

Midwest and northern plains cities are fighting with upstream farmers over the high nitrate levels that city water plants need to remove before sending the water on to city residents. We have the Clean Water Act which has helped us reduce factory-type point source pollution, but that doesn’t work well with non-point sources, like that coming from farms. There is no doubt the nitrates result from tillage, extensive inorganic fertilizer use, and tile-drained fields in upstream farms, but because of the diffuse and complex pathways, it becomes hard to delineate fault.