Soil Health and Habitat Program is a winning scenario for Ag and wildlife
In an undisclosed location along the southern tier of North Dakota’s Prairie Pothole Region, Jason Strand quickly glanced away from our Microsoft TEAMS interview, leaned forward in his chair, and then promptly apologized, “Sorry about the interruption,” he said with a smiling grin, “The roosters have lost their minds in the cover crop.”
Strand, a fourth-generation farmer, is divulging his successes thus far as a producer enrolled in Pheasants Forever’s Soil Health and Habitat Program (SHHP), funded by pet care leader Purina. Now in its third year, the program is designed to enhance soil health, protect water quality, and increase wildlife habitat for more resilient farms throughout MN, ND & SD – a region essential for producing the healthy ingredients used in Purina’s complete and balanced pet food formulas.
“The land has changed dramatically from when I was a kid,” explained Strand. “The way we currently farm has evolved to meet the demands of our soil resources – when we take care of the soil, our agricultural production increases and wildlife is a byproduct.”
The “dramatic change” he’s referring to are saline soils, an ag production culprit of extreme proportions caused by an increase in historical moisture levels. As water pushes salt to the top of the soil column and eventually dries, fields of white (salty soils) paint the countryside and the inability to produce a cash crop becomes evident.
Now enters the Soil Health and Habitat Program with an economic and conservation-friendly solution for producers, like Jason Strand, to fix salinity issues and address wildlife habitat through the concept of “living roots.”
“Perennial vegetation and cover crops have deep root systems that break up hardpan to pull water and salt back down into the soil column,” said Austin Lang, a Pheasants Forever Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist in North Dakota who introduced Strand to the SHHP initiative. “This program is a perfect fit for Jason because it addresses multiple concerns; salinity issues, input costs, livestock grazing options, and wildlife habitat.”
Here are some of the innovative strategies being implemented on the Strand Farm through the Soil Health and Habitat Program:
1. PERENNIAL COVER: The farm started with 20 acres of perennial habitat to address saline issues where crops simply could not grow. That total will jump to 70 acres in the coming year to tackle further soil alkalinity. A mixture of wheatgrass, bluestem, clover, flax, and sunflower is providing vital wildlife habitat for upland birds which can be hayed or grazed outside of the primary nesting season – a win-win for Strand AND local wildlife.
2. COVER CROP: The farm is utilizing 60 acres of cover crop cost-share through SHHP as a living solution for nutrient delivery within row crops (corn). Experimenting with 60-inch spacing between alternating two- and four-row corn plantings, Strand maintained adequate sunlight exposure for both cover crops and corn to harvest 100.5 bushels per acre (only adding 50lbs of nitrogen per acre!), provide wintertime grazing options for cattle, and a buffet during the summer and fall for pheasant broods, white-tailed deer, and pollinators. Plant species within the corn rows included rye, rapeseed, radish, buckwheat, pumpkins and sunflowers, among others.
“The more we talked, the more this project evolved from a few perennial plots to nearly 100 acres with the ultimate goal to rebuild the soil, decrease fertilizer and pesticide inputs, increase pollinators, benefit wildlife, and still maintain a cropping system that is profitable,” said Lang. “The take home message here is the ability of agriculture and wildlife to co-exist - Jason is living proof of this through the Soil Health and Habitat Program. It’s been an honor to work with him on behalf of Pheasants Forever and Purina.”
SHHP is helping farmers like Strand build habitat on acres of low productivity while utilizing the program stipend to increase profitability across entire fields. He also acknowledges the work accomplished through the program as a boon to his crops, soil health, and wildlife.
“We’re already seeing major returns on soil health metrics and bushels per acre, and the wildlife has increased dramatically. From birds and bucks to the constant hum of pollinators throughout the entire growing season, we take pride in the diversity on our farm.”
And yes, pheasant season was a roaring success for Jason and his sons thanks to some land management ingenuity, and the support of partners like Purina.