The chirping melody of grassland birds across prairies and pastures tells me that spring is here. Hearing these small voices throughout the grasslands is refreshing as these birds would not greet me without prairie remnants and pasture offering zones of refuge. For me, these songs were absent while growing up. Even though my neighbors had more than 100 acres of pasture the continuous grazing program of the pasture eliminated habitat for these grassland birds. This was not always the case. While the symphony of the prairie has become a regular background program for me there are many for whom these individual voices hearken to their childhoods. This is a regular story in the spring and summer as visitors come into the visitor center and mention that they have heard bobolinks for the first time since childhood. To a story, these are all literally walks down memory lane as bobolinks heartened them on their walk to the school bus stop on sunny spring mornings.
It is rewarding to hear these stories as each story tells me that prairie remnants and a diversified pasture program are operating in harmony. Prairie remnants throughout Whiterock Conservancy offer zones of refuge for nesting while pastures intermittently grazed pastures offer habitat for males to flit about, showing off their flashier colors. While the females are hard to find without binoculars or a keen eye these birds are another “little brown job” (small brown bird hard to identify). On the other hand, I have heard males referred to as “flying skunks”. Neither description may be flattering but the bobolink song is lyrical and unique and cannot be mistaken even if the culprit is hiding from view. The large scale landscape changes across Iowa and other midwestern states have caused a decline in the population of these small characteristic birds. Rotational grazing (RG) or management intensive grazing (MIG) requires more frequent moves of livestock but increases forage while also increasing ground-cover for grassland. With the implementation of RG and MIG the number of bobolinks has continued to increase as bobolinks continue to explore and use new habitat.
While it may be simpler to turn the cows out on pasture and pull them off come fall this is hard on both soil and the forage that nourish the cows. While pastures are perennial systems and have the potential to improve soils, improve water quality, and decrease erosion the abuse of these systems can result in negligible or worse conditions. Cows are heavy and can compact soil and cause erosion ditches in highly traveled areas. Rotating cows more frequently can prevent or the decrease the use of these favorite highways for getting water or the nearest shade tree. This also permits grass to grow more above ground – greater above ground growth means greater root growth that decreases soil compaction while increasing water infiltration. More time in the pasture my seem like a labor of love for soil and water quality but RG and MIG offers more consistent and nutrient-rich forage that better sustains cows. Better forage leads to healthier and more content cows, better socialized cows, better ability to avoid disease due to higher grazing – all of these in combination frequently lead to better calf gain and greater revenue. The answer at Whiterock for pasture management is clear: reap healthier soils, cleaner water, healthier cows, and better grassland bird communities by spending a little more time in the pasture with the cows.
Explore the prairies and grasslands at Whiterock this spring and summer and enjoy the melody of bobolinks while wandering the trails. Grasslands were historically the heart of the Iowa landscape and proper pasture management can aid in bringing back the characteristic species that are characteristic of the region.
From: Rob Davis, Conservation Lands Manager