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Realizing the Full Potential of CRP
Because of the number of acres enrolled, the Conservation Reserve Program offers the greatest potential to improve pheasant populations statewide, but other idle stands of grass can provide much needed habitat as well.
Furnas County farmer Fred Warner says, "The CRP has been a major factor to having any pheasants around this country. And pheasant chicks eat the little bugs on the clover and flowers, so I guess it's a good thing they're having us put those back in the CRP."
Idle land such as CRP provides the best nesting and brood-rearing habitat when it has a diverse mixture of grasses and broad-leafed plants. This mix of plants is greatest shortly after an area is disturbed and seeded. Most of the benefits appear in the first two years after the change. During the first year, legumes begin to grow and broad-leafed plants like annual sunflower, marestail, and kochia provide excellent cover and food. In the second year, annuals are fewer, the legumes dominate, and grasses are fairly abundant. From that point, the percentage of grass increases and legumes and broad-leafed plants decline.
These broad-leafed plants are important because they provide good overhead concealment from birds of prey for a hen and her nest. They also provide a selection of tasty insects and a safe place for pheasant chicks to find and eat them. Adult pheasants can eat seeds and grain, but to grow and develop properly, pheasant chicks require the protein, fat and calcium that a diet of insects provides. Forbs like alfalfa, sweet clover and annual broad-leafed weeds support a lot of insects.
Patches of broad-leafed plants are also good places for hens to brood their chicks when they are very young and the weather is cool or wet. Because the chicks' feathers are not developed enough to keep them warm, a cool, wet spring and summer tend to reduce the size of pheasant broods.
Smooth brome and other aggressive plants begin to take over a field two or three years after it is disturbed, so on CRP land mid-contract management must be used to reestablish the broad-leafed plants so vital to pheasant reproduction.
Management techniques such as disking, controlled burning, intensive grazing or the use of chemicals may all be used.
Pictured is a 13-year-old Nance County CRP field one month after being disked and interseeded. The brome on the left overtook the field within three years of being planted.
Three months later, the disked and interseeded area holds a healthy stand of broad-leafed plants, annual weeds and legumes.
After a January snowstorm, the old stand of brome has little cover and food for wildlife, while the disked and interseeded area offers both just three months after planting.
Although not always needed, interseeding legumes after using any of these management techniques greatly increases its effectiveness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Pheasants Forever have information to guide you in these operations and may provide financial assistance to help perform them. Before starting, the landowner or operator must check with the local Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency to verify that the project is allowed. Since cost-share assistance may be available, a modification to the conservation plan and a cost-share form must be completed.
CRP guidelines limit this type of management to 100 percent of the field every three years, preferably on a different third of the field each year. Some landowners, particularly in drier regions of the state, may get good results with a four- or five-year rotation. The improved habitat helps newly hatched chicks by providing food, shelter and protection from predators.
A field with a variety of plant populations also usually fills a pheasant's year-round needs. The recently disturbed areas re-populated with broad-leafed plants provide nesting and brood-rearing cover, the high-protein insects that chicks need to survive, and plenty of seed heads to feed the birds in the fall and winter. The older parts of the field provide additional seed and all of the cover pheasants need to survive most winters. Winter habitat projects like food plots and shelterbelts may help during the occasional severe winter, but if the pheasants don't have good nesting and brood-rearing cover available, winter habitat will have few birds to protect.