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#06-122 May 8, 2006

Soil and water conservation practices also benefit wildlife

Conservation tillage, the practice of planting agricultural crops through a previous crop’s residue, offers many benefits to soil and water conservation but also to wildlife, according to a state wildlife biologist.

No-till is a type of conservation tillage that produces crops with the least amount of soil disturbance, said Judy Barnes, wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Small Game Project. Benefits of no-till agriculture include reduced machinery wear, labor requirements, soil erosion, release of carbon gases and air pollution. No-till saves time, fuel costs, and improves long-term soil productivity, surface water quality, water infiltration and retention, and soil tilth.

“There are so many benefits that it is impossible to think of a farmer not using no-till planting techniques,” Barnes said.

For more information on conservation tillage or enhancing habitat for bobwhite quail, contact Barnes at barnesj@dnr.sc.gov or (803) 734-4306 in Columbia.

Another often-overlooked benefit of no-till agriculture is an increase in the quality and quantity of wildlife habitat, according to Barnes. Productive soils and crop residue provide better shelter and food for wildlife such as bobwhite quail. For the first two weeks of life, bobwhite quail chicks have an extremely high requirement for protein, which can be met through the consumption of insects. Research conducted at North Carolina State University indicates that no-till fields are much more productive brood habitat than conventionally tilled fields. During this study, bobwhite quail chicks were more than twice as efficient at obtaining their daily requirement of protein in no-tilled fields as compared to conventionally tilled fields. Increased foraging efficiency of quail chicks may increase brood survival by minimizing foraging time and reducing chicks’ exposure to predators and other mortality factors.

Despite farmers’ concerns over increased populations of insects in no-tilled fields, research has indicated that crop residue remaining on the ground following conservation tillage actually harbors greater populations of beneficial insects than detrimental insects. Beneficial insects are those insects that prey upon or parasitize pest insect species.

No-till in conjunction with other conservation practices such as field borders and filter strips will provide critical habitat for bobwhite quail, rabbits, songbirds, and many other species of wildlife.

A field border, or transition zone, is simply a 30- to 120-foot zone of native herbaceous vegetation around the perimeter of a crop field. “These field borders provide an ‘edge effect’ so beneficial to quail and other species,” Barnes said. “Edges are important because they combine some of the characteristics of two or more habitats. Edges are inhabited by some of the animals and plants that are characteristic of each original habitat, plus species that are adapted to live in edges. This of course creates a more diverse population of wildlife and plant species on one’s property.”

Field borders provide nesting and brood-rearing cover, and food sources in the form of native weed seeds and insects. Beneficial insects are attracted to field borders and fit in well with Integrated Pest Management. Reducing the disturbance of residue in the top few inches of soil favors the survival and development of ants, spiders, ground beetles, and rove beetles that often feed on insects. A slight increase in weed presence, at least during portions of the season, can attract parasitic wasps that feed on the nectar or pollen from flowering weeds and serve as a predator for problem insects.

Field borders do not increase crop depredation from insects, but rather may actually decrease infestations in adjoining crops. Also, precision farming technology indicates that edges of fields typically suffer a 20 percent reduction in yield and may be unprofitable to till, plant, treat with fertilizers and chemicals, and harvest. The acreage lost to field borders is small since a 30 foot-wide strip, one-half mile in length totals less than two acres.

Similar to field borders, filter strips are bands of vegetation adjacent to ditches or other water bodies that serve to trap sediments, chemicals and nutrients. They also provide nesting and brooding cover for quail, and allow birds to access the interior of larger fields. Filter strips can be as narrow as 12 feet in width, but 25-50 feet is better. Maintenance by shallow discing on a two- to three-year cycle is necessary to sustain the proper vegetation component for quail. Ditches with filter strips on both sides should be maintained by discing only one side in a given year.

Like conservation tillage, field borders and filter strips inhibit overland movement of topsoil and nutrients, thus protecting soil and water quality. In combination, these practices may produce significant improvement in agricultural efficiency, soil and water conservation benefits and wildlife habitat.

The DNR’s Land, Water and Conservation and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries divisions are working together to help farmers improve agricultural efficiency and wildlife habitat on South Carolina's farmlands. Conservation Districts rent conservation tillage equipment to private landowners as well as hunt clubs. Contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District Office for more information on renting this equipment.
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