Prepared by Lilian Schaer for Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association
Two grassland bird species are currently listed as threatened within Ontario. Their habitat is often also used by farmers as grazing land for their livestock. So what’s the best way to strike a balance between conservation and farming? That’s what a two-year demonstration project headed up by the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association (OSCIA) and funded by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund is trying to determine.
Nicole MacDonald is a graduate student at Trent University who is working with four Renfrew County beef farmers to monitor Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark populations on their farms and to determine which grazing management systems would be most beneficial to these birds.
“From May to the end of July this year  I was in the field to gather data on these two bird species. This included point counts to record birds by sight and sound and to track their reproductive activities,” MacDonald explains. “I was also measuring vegetation characteristics to determine what the birds are looking for and what type of vegetation they prefer to be living in.”
Each of the farms participating in the project is a larger-sized beef farm with significant grazing. MacDonald visited each site multiple times throughout her field season to monitor the birds and observe the impact of different rotational grazing systems. These on-farm practices provide important breeding habitat for these two bird species in particular.
“We want to measure the impact of these different systems so we can determine what is good for the birds,” she says. “We’ve noticed, for example, that grazing during the nesting period negatively affects the birds; they build their nests on the ground so they’re at high risk of being trampled.”
The Bobolink has a short window for building a nest and caring for their young—about 35 days— and if they’re trampled during this process, they don’t have enough time to start over again. With rotational grazing, for example, MacDonald says it is possible to leave some pasture areas ungrazed during the nesting period and for farmers to move cattle in once the birds are done. The field study will be repeated in 2013 before final recommendations are made.
Craig McLaughlin is one of the farmers who have granted access to his land for the OSCIA study. He has a cow-calf and backgrounding operation in the Ottawa Valley and grazes about 200 head of cattle in the summer. So far, he hasn’t made any changes to his regular grazing and pasture management practices, but he’s interested to see the data and results from the project.
“We’re still in the data collecting phase to establish the birds’ patterns with our grazing and haying activities,” he says. “All of us do things a bit differently on our farms but we’re all anxious to see the data. We should be able to tweak our operations to help increase the birds’ populations.”
There is concern in the farm community about what could happen to farmers’ livelihoods if strict rules governing grassland bird habitats are put in place. For McLaughlin, this kind of investigation is important for both conservation efforts and to help demonstrate that normal farming practices can have beneficial impacts on species.
It can be easy to point the finger at agriculture as the reason for reduced populations, he says, but farming can also have positive impacts. In his case, the economics of the BSE crisis in 2003 meant he had to adapt his production practices to include more grazing instead of hay production, a change that has brought more grassland birds to his farm.
“I hadn’t set out to attract grassland birds but since I switched to more grazing, there have been more of them because now the habitat is there for them. It’s been a bit of a “if you build it, they will come” scenario,” he says, adding that planting crops on marginal land that is more suited to grazing than cropping can destroy habitat. “As a cow-calf farmer you are providing habitat and the economic viability of a beef operation can go hand in hand with the long-term viability of grassland birds.”
McLaughlin encourages other farmers to get involved in conservation efforts, as they may help improve an operation’s bottom line as well as have positive spin-off effects for the birds. The only way to find solutions that will work for everyone, says MacDonald, is for farmers and researchers to continue to work together to evaluate techniques and learn about the birds’ behaviours.
“We’re still early on in this project but we do know that having cattle in the same area as the birds has a negative impact on their population, yet we also know that we need these farming practices,” she says. “The key is finding the balance between the two. The stabilization and conservation of these populations can only happen if we find a balance. It’s not a simple solution but the key will be co-operation from everyone.”
For more information, contact Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association at firstname.lastname@example.org