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As mentioned earlier, disking and interseeding with legumes or forbs offers the greatest potential for increasing the value of most CRP fields for wildlife habitat in general and pheasant nesting and brooding cover. When applied correctly, disking and interseeding improves plant diversity and maintains vigorous growth, yielding excellent wildlife benefits.
Saline County landowner Dennis Hermesh
says, "This site came in a little light (on grass), but it allowed the legumes
and other plants to stay in the stand."
A general guideline for this management technique is to disturb 50 percent of the disked surface to a depth of about three inches. Disking intensity may need to be reduced in areas prone to erosion or increased in stands of sod-bound smooth brome, switchgrass or intermediate wheatgrass.
If the objective is to reduce coverage of certain grasses, particularly smooth brome, disk in September and October or in April when the grass stand is most vulnerable. Disking does not kill the grass, but simply breaks up the sod and allows other plants like legumes and some weeds to establish.
Areas with erosive soils or past noxious weed problems should be avoided. To further reduce erosion, strips within the field can be treated on the contour or perpendicular to prevailing winds. Strip treating a field in this manner also benefits wildlife by creating more edge habitat where treated and untreated areas adjoin. Consider proximity to other habitat types when deciding where to disk. Disking of grass near thickets, wetlands, fields, and other beneficial areas will provide a better mix of habitat for wildlife.
Legume/Forb Interseeding -What to Plant and How
Legumes are less expensive than other forbs and are easier to establish when interseeding immediately after light disking. Alfalfa and sweet clover are the most commonly used legumes and can be used statewide.
A dryland, rhizomatous variety of alfalfa should be planted, and sweet clover should be used in conjunction with a perennial legume. Red clover may be used in the eastern half of the state and hairy vetch is suitable in sandy soils. A minimum of two pounds of introduced legume, in any combination, should be seeded per acre.
Only interseed native forbs into stands with native mixtures because introduced grasses will out-compete them. These forbs generally persist longer than introduced legumes. Purple prairie clover, black-eyed Susan, showy partridgepea and upright coneflower are readily available.
Native forbs contain a large number of seeds per pound and can easily be combined in a mix. A local NRCS field office can provide information on the seeding rates and adaptability of various species.
Legumes may either be drilled or broadcast following the disking operation. Broadcast seed falls into crevices created by disking and is sufficiently covered following subsequent rain, so no secondary pass to cover the seeds is needed. Some land managers have successfully interseeded introduced legume seed by broadcasting it prior to disking. However, care must be taken to not cover the seed too deeply while still creating enough disturbances to allow the legume to germinate and thrive.
While some landowners may be interested in having more pheasants on their land, for one reason or another, they are not able improve habitat by disking and interseeding their CRP ground or other grasslands.
Some may have had a noxious weed problem in the past and do not want to stir up seeds and encourage them to return. Others may have highly erosive soils that preclude the practice.
Ritch Nelson, state wildlife biologist with the USDA Natural Resources onservation Service, said those individuals have options that, when used properly, can increase plant diversity and improve the wildlife habitat value of their CRP.
Nelson said Roundup or other herbicides can be used to set back invasive grasses such as smooth brome. Producers can then interseed legumes with a no-till drill or allow the seeds of annual plants that are already present to germinate. Spring application provides the best control of brome, and warm-season grass stands can also be treated in the spring before those species begin to grow.
This practice has successfully been used at Harlan County Reservoir to set back brome grass as part of the Focus on Pheasants program. Areas were hayed, burned or disked, then sprayed once brome regrowth was sufficient. The same was done at Medicine Creek Reservoir and other areas in southwestern Nebraska to control brome or to set back cool season grasses in mixed grass prairie restorations.
Restoration burns can be used on CRP grasslands to restore desirable plant communities, Nelson said. A May burn will help remove invasive cool-season grasses such as brome from a stand of warm season grasses. Burning can also control unwanted trees such as red cedar or Siberian elm. The latter is best controlled by burning when the trees' leaves are emerging, and may require burns in subsequent years.
Periodic maintenance burns can help maintain quality grassland habitat. A burn in later winter or early spring will suppress grass growth and increase the health and vigor of forbs. Burning can also be used to increase disking efficiency by removing plant material from a field.
Buffalo helped maintain the health of prairies prior to Euro-American settlement on the plains. Moving in large herds, their grazing habits and the soil disturbance caused by their hooves promoted diverse plant growth.
Landowners can simulate this disturbance and help set back brome or switchgrass with short-term, intensive cattle grazing of their CRP, Nelson said. Typically, increased stocking rates are required to attain the desired results, but in lighter soils, standard stocking rates may be sufficient.
Burning and Grazing
Nelson said this practice is gaining acceptance among
land managers in the Midwest because it so closely replicates the way native
grasslands evolved. Portions of an area are burned prior to turning in cattle,
which focuses their grazing on the new growth in the burned area. "Generally speaking, they'll eat the grass and not the forbs, so it really helps to increase the forb diversity on that stand by putting more pressure on grass," Nelson
said. Unburned areas are, for the most part, ignored by the cattle. The result
is a patchwork of varied habitats on the same property.
Nelson generally doesn't promote haying CRP other
than to remove vegetation prior to disking or applying herbicide. Early-season
haying can destroy pheasant nests and late-season haying removes both winter
cover and early-season nesting cover. The practice provides only a minimal
increase in diversity when compared to grazing and removes nutrients rather
than recycling them "in the form of cowpies." If haying is used, it must
be properly timed.
Nelson said a combination of several of these practices
may produce the best results for pheasants. For example, a firebreak could
be disked around and through a field, and that area interseeded with legumes.
After burning half of an area, it could then be grazed. "This would result
in a wide array of plant communities within that one field."
All of these practices, when applied properly, are approved by the NRCS, although some will result in a reduced contract payment. Producers should contact their local NRCS office for more information.