Habitat & Conservation  |  12/10/2021

Commodities & Conservation: Making the Case for Symbiosis


A new conservation program in western Kansas has big implications for farmers, upland habitat, water quality and carbon sequestration

By Brittany Smith, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Precision Aq & Conservation Specialist

Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever launched a new conservation incentive program for western Kansas sorghum growers in partnership with the United Sorghum Checkoff Program last month. The program, Sorghum for BIRDS (Building Innovative, Resilient, and Diverse agricultural Systems), is a joint effort to engage growers by analyzing sub-field profitability and identifying opportunities to increase per-acre returns by enrolling low-yielding, revenue-negative areas into conservation programs that make sense for the farmer. In Kansas we are focusing on edge-of-field perennial cover practices like field borders, pivot corners, and playa wetland buffers to increase wildlife habitat. We are also putting emphasis on whole-field agronomic practices like incorporating cover crops, moving to reduced tillage systems, and water conservation measures like the adoption of advanced irrigation water management practices. Excitingly, we will also be collecting three years of data from all fields enrolled in the program to quantify what impacts these practices are having across the landscape.

When I met up with landowner Randy Rodgers for the first time to discuss the Sorghum for BIRDS program, I realized I was in for something just a little different than one of my typical site visits. Having spent 31 years as the Upland Gamebird Biologist for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP), Randy’s reputation as a biologist preceded him and I was curious to learn more about his approach to agriculture. Randy has created a habitat oasis in an intensively farmed area in the 11 years since he “retired.” In 2005, he and his wife, Helen Hands (also a retired KDWP biologist), began purchasing land in Rush County, KS with the goal of realizing their vision for what agriculture in the area could look like – a mosaic, with wildlife habitat interwoven like a patchwork quilt across their marginal acres. 

With careful planning they designed a system they’ve since applied across all their farms.  First, crop acres are planned as connected strips with consistent widths determined by the farmer's equipment. These strips are designed to occupy only the most productive soils and avoid any previously constructed features like terraces, highly erodible land, or sensitive lands like steep slopes, drainages, and riparian areas. Second, crop fields are planted following the elevation contour rather than planting up and downhill to minimize soil erosion. Finally, all acres are farmed using no-till.

New tenant? No problem. When Randy’s tenant changed a few years ago, the new operator had a slightly smaller sprayer. The simple and profitable solution was to add width to existing Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) prairie strips using the Monarch butterfly habitat enhancement practice available through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The spectacular number of monarch butterflies migrating through during our September visit were a testament to how well these “habitat islands” as Randy likes to call them, really do work.  

Maintaining these islands is also easier than managing a large block of CRP. On Randy’s farm a typical crop rotation starts with soybeans. Once harvested, winter wheat is planted and harvested the following summer. With much of the growing season available after wheat harvest, sorghum can be planted and harvested the same year, allowing for double cropping. In years when wheat is growing, native prairie habitat strips are managed with prescribed fire in early spring when the surrounding crop field is still green. 

But why not just farm it all? Why put in all this extra effort?

For Randy, the answer is inherent. He sees the need to create a symbiotic system, one in which production agriculture and nature work together. We have all seen the headlines reacting to loss of biodiversity on a global scale, climate change challenges, and the alarming rate of grassland habitat loss. The good news is prairie strips like the ones Randy has installed over the last 16 years have a significant capacity to help buffer against these concerns. Prairies, even in relatively small strips, have the capacity to sequester substantial amounts of carbon. If implemented across an entire agricultural landscape, the combined impact could be enormous. Prairie strips also provide habitat connectivity and corridors for migrating wildlife to move freely and find all the resources they need to successfully live out their life cycles and reproduce.    

For Randy’s tenant, the answer is also inherent. This system must be profitable. When I asked the tenant about it, he told me simply, “This is still a business. We’re not just farming this way for fun.  We’re turning a profit.” By farming only, the productive acres, less is spent on lost inputs which increases the return on investment and boosts farm yields. “And we have a happy landlord!” which is worth its weight in gold.  

The saying might be a little cheesy, but it’s true: there is no Planet B. The creation of the Sorghum for BIRDS program between Pheasants Forever, Quail Forever and the United Sorghum Checkoff Program is helping protect Planet A, Earth. This program provides a one-time incentive when low preforming acres are targeted for conservation practices. The importance of sorghum in this semi-arid western Kansas landscape cannot be overstated. Over two million people (including me) rely on the rapidly declining Ogallala aquifer for our water. The fact that irrigation is the primary consumer of this aquifer water is unavoidable. However, water-conserving crops like sorghum require less water to achieve their full yield potential, which is good news for rural economies that are dependent on the sustained existence of local agriculture. By weaving habitat and soil-health practices into the picture the way Randy Rodgers has, we can establish a truly sustainable system for the future.