Pheasants Forever working to improve agriculture practices and bolster Michigan pheasant populations
By Ben Beaman, Stare Coordinator for Michigan Pheasants Forever
Michigan pheasant numbers peaked in the mid-20th century when hunters here routinely harvested over 1 million roosters annually.
Back then, there wasn’t all that much native grassland habitat left in Michigan — it was largely tilled under for farmland many decades earlier — but we did have loads of small family farms with diverse crop rotations and pasture for grazing livestock. Farming equipment wasn’t as precise as we have today, so fencerows between farms were mostly left idle, providing quality cover around the farm fields and pastures. This landscape was very similar to the Eastern Chinese countryside, where the ring-necked pheasant is native, which is why the species took hold so quickly.
Changing economic pressures and improved technology ushered in a new era of agriculture in which a far smaller number of farmers are farming much larger acreages and much more efficiently. GPS technology has made buffer zones between neighbors unnecessary, so the weedy fencerows that once provided excellent habitat have been ripped out. High-value, herbicide-resistant cash crops and ethanol subsidies have made the ubiquitous corn/soybean rotation so profitable that small grains are nearly non-existent in Michigan’s farm country these days. Farmers today harness the best technology available to produce as much food as possible. And who can blame them? Even with their dwindling numbers, they’re under more and more pressure each year to feed a booming human population worldwide. The sad reality is that the trend presents a bleak outlook for pheasants and other farmland wildlife.
Fortunately, there is a growing movement in the agricultural world to combine today’s advanced farming technology and know-how with the historical farming practices that once dominated the landscape. It’s called regenerative agriculture, and at its core, it’s all about working WITH the land, rather than against it, to simultaneously improve farm sustainability AND profitability. And if done correctly, it has the potential to enhance the landscape of pheasants and other wildlife drastically. Precision analysis of crop yield maps generated by advanced computing technology already in use by many farmers can be harnessed to identify areas within specific fields that are costing a farmer more to farm than they are getting back out of it. Michigan’s farm country is full of these “red acres.”
Drive through rural Michigan in late summer, and you can easily spot wet pockets in fields where the soybeans never sprouted. You can see it at the edges of woodlots, where the corn is sad and spindly due to a combination of shade and water loss to tree roots. These areas of farm fields are perfect candidates for conservation practice implementation. Restoring these acres to grassland through a farm bill habitat program like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) would benefit pheasants most. But even conversion to cool-season grasses for hay production would be an improvement for wildlife.
Other changes can be even more straightforward. Just incorporating winter wheat into the standard Corn/Soy rotation has been proven to improve yields of corn and soybeans by improving soil health and disrupting pest and disease cycles. Winter wheat is hugely beneficial to pheasants and other grassland wildlife. Because it’s planted in the late summer/early fall and harvested the following summer — and therefore undisturbed during the primary nesting season — nesting success rates in winter wheat rival those of native grasslands. Corn and soybeans do not provide this benefit. Undisturbed nesting cover is the primary habitat component missing from Michigan’s farmland if you’re a pheasant. Can you imagine if one-quarter to one-third of our farmland was suddenly suitable for pheasants to nest in? And to pile on the benefits of wheat, its early summer harvest leaves enough growing season for a diverse cover crop to develop into suitable brood-rearing habitat through the rest of the summer and provide dense cover through the winter. Most farmers already possess the equipment needed to grow and harvest wheat. Winter canola offers the same wildlife and soil health benefits as winter wheat. It is gaining popularity in U.S. markets, giving farmers another profitable option to diversify their rotation even further.
Precision corn planting can help a farmer have better yields and a better return on investment. The left map is before precision planting and the right is after.
And regenerative ag isn’t only for row-crop farms. Dairies, specialty crops, orchards and more can all benefit wildlife and soil health while improving their overall profitability by incorporating specific regenerative conservation practices.
We at Pheasants Forever believe strongly that the future of pheasants and other grassland wildlife relies heavily on working lands and the farmers that manage them. That’s why we’ve initiated our new Regenerative Ag & Conservation Program right here in Michigan, to help farmers identify opportunities to incorporate targeted conservation practices and improved farming methods that benefit wildlife and farm profitability, free of charge.
Currently, Pheasants Forever has a Regenerative Ag & Conservation Specialist covering the Southwest Lower Peninsula, with plans to expand the program to the Southeast Lower soon. If you farm or own farmland and are interested in learning about how regenerative agriculture can simultaneously benefit you and your local wildlife, reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.