by Peter Paden
Published June 1, 2012 in the Register-Star
It’s been a beautiful Spring. Lots of sunshine; lots of rain. The first sprouts of newly planted corn and soy beans are peeking up above the soil in neatly planted rows. And the first cutting of luscious green hay is being harvested.
Over the years at about this time we hear from people who are avid bird lovers, concerned about this early mowing cycle. They call or write expressing consternation that the fields at the Ooms Conservation Area at Sutherland Pond, on Rock City Road in Old Chatham, one of the best loved properties we manage for public access and enjoyment, are being mowed. Are we not aware that these fields are important breeding grounds for bobolink and other bird species that depend for their survival on grassland habitat? How could we, a conservation organization, allow such a thing to take place?
We have given this question a lot of thought. Since that first harvest is getting underway, I thought it might be of interest to address the question here. It presents an interesting example of how important conservation objectives are not always entirely consistent with each other and how, as a result, we are sometimes called upon to harmonize them as best we can. Anyone who owns a grassy field and arranges for it to be hayed, or simply brush-hogged to keep it open, should be aware of this information.
What’s the Problem?
The problem arises out of a conflict between the practices of modern farming and the biological cycles of various species of birds.
North American grassland songbirds depend for their survival on grassy fields, where they nest and breed and feed on insects. These include such species as the bobolink, savannah sparrow, and eastern meadowlark. Populations of these birds have declined dramatically in recent decades reflecting, among other things, the greatly diminished acreage of open fields in the landscape since the 19th century, when something like 80% of the countryside was cleared. Farming was largely responsible for the vast tracts of open fields a hundred years ago. It is responsible for a large percentage of the fields that remain. If farming in our region were to die out altogether, we would lose a very substantial amount of the grassland habitat we still enjoy.
However, in marked contrast to earlier times, modern farming practices contemplate three and sometimes four separate cuttings of hay in a single season. Such a haying schedule is devastating to the birds that depend on grassland habitat. New York and New England experienced a significant influx of grassland birds many decades ago when huge areas of the prairies in the mid-West, a vast ocean of grassland habitat, were plowed under by agricultural enterprise.
While the particulars vary from species to species, the birds will nest in May or early June, and the young will not be fully fledged for a period of four to six weeks. As a result, when fields are mowed as early as late May or mid-June, the first fledging cycle will be destroyed. If they are mowed again in five or six weeks, so will the next. In short, hay fields managed for maximum productivity will no longer provide viable habitat for grassland bird species, contributing significantly to the challenges to survival those species face.
What’s the Solution?
This problem has been well understood for some time. The traditional preference of those concerned with survival of the birds has been to delay mowing entirely until mid August or later. This practice will allow the reproductive cycles of all species to run their course. It is, however, completely inconsistent with farmers’ need for quality hay.
In recognition of this problem, an alternative recommendation has been to delay cutting until mid-July. This permits at least one fledging cycle to run its course. However, this schedule also is not viable, or at minimum, is distinctly less desirable, for many if not most farm needs, because hay cut for the first time in mid-July has lower nutritional content than earlier cuttings.
Recognizing the desirability of finding a way to harmonize the needs of the farmer and these wonderful avian species, researchers have set out to find a better solution. Studies done under the aegis of the University of Vermont have suggested one. If the first cutting takes places early enough, by late May or very early in June, and the second cutting is then delayed for a period of at least 65 days, these studies suggest there will be time for at least one fledging cycle of each affected species to run its course. The studies further suggest that the net survival rate for the species is approximately the same, whether there is a single fledging cycle or two.
Where Does CLC Come Out on All This?
CLC owns or manages several properties that have extensive open fields. The most substantial in size is the Greenport Conservation Area, a former farm property where there are some 100 acres of open fields once used for crops or pasture. Farming is no longer conducted at Greenport, and one of our management objectives there is to care for the property to support its function as an important grassland bird habitat. For this reason, we mow the fields at Greenport, at most, once a year and we do so in the autumn, after all fledging cycles have run their course.
At the Ooms Conservation Area, however, we have an additional management objective. We are committed to support the property’s valuable function as home to grassland bird species. But we are also committed to support the vitality of the farm community, a goal we believe to be a critically important conservation strategy here in Columbia County. Fifty years of hard work went into managing the property to be a productive hay field before it became the wonderful community resource it is today, and we believe that to be an investment worth supporting.
Therefore, at Ooms we have adopted the policy recommended by the studies done at the University of Vermont. If conditions permit the property to be hayed by or before June 2 – if the grass is sufficiently developed and the soil is not too wet – it may be harvested. But in that case, there will not be a second cutting for at least 65 days. If hay cannot be harvested by June 2, it will be left alone until mid-July, which will ensure the completion of the first fledging cycle.
Do You Own a Hay Field?
If you own or manage a field of grass, you may want to consider the impact of your management practices on grassland birds. If you are not looking to achieve an agricultural objective, if you’re just brush hogging it annually to keep it clear, you’ll provide the best support for these birds by waiting until the autumn. Clearly, that is the most effective way to support bird species that depend on grassland habitat. However, if you or someone else is taking hay from the land, you may want to consider or discuss with your farmer whether an arrangement such as the one we have in place at the Ooms Conservation Area could meet the farming needs.
Peter Paden is Executive Director of the Columbia Land Conservancy. His column appears on the first Friday of every month.