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Conservation Corner

Back to No till

Mon, April 23, 2012

Reminder: No-Till Benefits Pay Off

If 2012 turns into a hot, dry year, conservation-minded farmers could be living proof that No-Till delivers. According to specialists at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS, back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the concept of no-till planting and the use of residue were ‘out of the box’ ideas. Twenty years later? No-till, for some, is the standard norm.

Unfortunately, Illinois has seen some farmers revert back and re-initiate deep tillage operations. For some, wet and saturated soils were a serious problem. For others, the build-up of sturdy and non-degrading corn residue created a thick mat too tough to penetrate for planting.

Over the past couple of years, USDA acknowledged these operational realities and with good documentation and consultation, localized tillage has been permitted without any compliance penalties.  Even so, NRCS encourages farmers to get back to basics and get back to no-till/ strip till.

Consistent plant emergence—An early warm weather front opened an early planting window and tillage operations that can dry out soil. Some seeds find moisture while others must wait for rain, leading to uneven germination. No-till farmers will see a more even and consistent plant emergence. Even emergence means even growth, which makes management through the growing year simpler and harvest easier. Good organic matter found in healthy no-till soils protects seeds and offers the best environment for optimal germination.

Soil temperatures—No-till soils enjoy a residue “blanket” which maintains soil temperatures when outside temps drop. This protects germinating seeds and provides better establishment and productivity.

Erosion control—don’t forget the reason no-till started. Residue materials cover bare soil, protecting soil and sediment from the powerful impact of falling raindrops. Rain and wind can dislodge soil particles and carry them off the field.

Moisture maintenance—like insulating mulch, residue keeps soil moisture from evaporating into the air. If drought conditions occur, no-till fields usually fare better than those that are tilled.

Soil health—over time, soils left undisturbed build a healthy soil structure—one that contains micro-organisms and pore space. Research proves healthy soils absorb water better, hold onto water longer, and support more durable and productive agricultural crops. Health soils = healthy profits!

Get back to no-till, you’ll save time, fuel, and be better prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws at us this year.  To learn more about no-till benefits or other conservation practices for your farm, visit today!



Prescribed Burning SAFELY

Thu, March 22, 2012

This is the time of the year when individuals are conducting burns of prairie grasses for various reasons.  Whether it’s to get more ground-level food and access for birds in a native grass planting, or bring more prairie plants to bloom,  or to as a process of killing off cool season grasses as you convert to native prairie grasses and wildflowers. 

Prescribed burning is using fire to improve vegetation on a piece of land.  It stimulates growth of new plants, particularly legumes that offer food for wildlife. Fire won’t always improve wildlife habitat, but will if it’s done at the right time in the right situation. The key thing is SAFETY. 

In the last couple of weeks one landowner in northern Illinois died when he became encircled by the flames of a fire him and his wife were doing on their acreage.  Recently a friend’s wife just suffered burns as she ran out to help with a prescribed burn that was being done on her property by her husband and friend(s).  At the present time, she is in the burn unit and will undergo skin grafts. 

Timing depends on goals.

You can set back existing vegetation, remove litter, control woody plants and “release” more desirable species by burning.  Which grass or other plants you stimulate depends on the time of year you burn. For instance, April and May grassland burns will stimulate the dormant warm season grasses more than cool season species. (But it could destroy nests, so don’t burn all your grassland at one time.)  Late winter burns generally stimulate cool season grasses. Fall burns control woody vegetation and are better for forbs.

Burn in rotation.

Burning a third of the area you want to improve for wildlife each year is a good idea.

Fire safety first.

Safe prescribed burns have to be planned out in advance. Common sense is very important, but experience and training are called for because a fire can get away from even the most experienced people.

Before you burn, you should make a fire plan that includes firebreaks, equipment needed, weather and forecast, local permits, notifications and other approvals needed, potential impacts of fire or smoke spread, fences, and other details.  It’s essential to establish safe firebreaks or fire lines. Streams or roads are good firebreaks if they are wide enough to contain the fire. The common way to establish firebreaks is to disc strips at least 10 feet wide.  If you can go wider that is better.  I have seen some firebreaks 70 feet wide. 

The firebreak has to completely surround the area being burned.  A firebreak can be short grasses/legumes like bluegrass, redtop, alsike clover and ladino clover.  If you are going to be doing a spring burn, mow the firebreaks as short as you can the previous fall to allow the material to decompose over winter and have less dead material around come spring. 

Some I have seen create firebreaks on flat ground that does not have slope by using a moldboard plow.  This works well just that it creates a bumpy area that you will find every time you drive over them for the rest of the year. Of course one could smooth these out after the burn is completely finished. 

Saturday evening when my friend texted me asking if I wanted to help burn some grass in the morning with them I passed since I had to prior commitments with my wife and son on Sunday.  NRCS also does not want its employees out being involved in prescribed burns on weekends or on their own time for liability reasons. 

Monday morning after getting to work I heard the bad news that the wife got burned.  Apparently all was going well and they had sectioned off all the grasses.  They had 200 gallons of water like I recommended.  Someone was pushing to complete the last section of grass to be burned.  Another crew member was tired.  They were down to the last 10 feet of grass being completed somehow some hot embers got into the adjacent timber surrounding the field. 

They called the fire department for assistance putting out the fire in the woods.  She came to help them.  Unfortunately several errors occurred, she was wearing shorts and tennis shoes and no leather gloves.  She was being told to stay back because of this to my understanding; however she grabbed a bucket of water and headed off to throw it on the fire in the woods.  A vine caught her ankle and she tripped into the burning area.  She suffered burns on her legs, knees, calf, and hands. 


All could have been avoided if she was wearing the proper attire.  Obviously not tennis shoes and shorts.  Gloves would have protected her hands.  Blue jeans or fire retardant pants or overalls would have prevented the burns on the exposed legs. 

From my discussion with my friend several things come to mind having been through several NRCS sponsored burn courses.  Having the proper clothing for all crew members.  I don’t think she was a “crew member” but like she said when I called her at the burn unit, she was not thinking.  It is my understanding that she will not be allowed to be around when they do more burns in the future. 

They had disked firebreaks, rakes, water, and shovels.  Pheasants Forever/Quail Forever chapters, Quail Unlimited chapters, local Soil & Water Conservation Districts have available equipment to help conduct prescribed burns with.  Some Districts have prescribed burn workshops for landowners wanting to learn how to safely burn. 

Some equipment that come to mind include flappers, back pack sprayers, backpack blowers, and drip torches.  The flappers would have helped in trying to put out the fire, as well as the blowers. 

Before you do a prescribed burn, call the fire department as a courtesy so they know where it is at and will all ready be thinking of how to get there in an emergency. 

However safety is the number one concern. 



Managing The Guests

Thu, January 26, 2012

Perhaps you may have attempted to provide habitat that invites wildlife close to your home only to discover that you have been unintentionally feeding creatures that you really don’t want so close to your house.

What to do when the wrong species shows up hungry is the subject of an article, “Uninvited Dinner Guests,” written by Joe McFarland in the February 2004 issue of Outdoor Life, published by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

When you put food out to attract songbirds, you need to remember the fact that “opportunistic wildlife doesn’t weigh intentions when it comes to snatching an easy meal.”  The simple act of feeding birds often attracts unintended freeloaders. Greedy squirrels, although fascinating to watch, can consume more than their share. McFarland suggests that “a sprinkle of red pepper in the bird seed truly works to deter squirrels. Birds don’t notice the taste, yet squirrels can’t stand it.”

Squirrels are good at finding a way into your attic if trees are very close to your house.  I can remember Kurtis breaking out in laughter when his sister called telling him that there was a squirrel in our house.  Seems Kole had forgotten to close the door after letting the dog in downstairs.  Keely had an adventure getting that squirrel out of the house being home alone.  She had been wondering why the dog was barking up a fit downstairs that day.

About raccoons, masked bandits of the night with their brawn and safe-cracking skills, McFarland suggests that you “try switching to safflower seed instead of sunflower seeds.  Birds still flock to safflower seeds but raccoons don’t care much for it.” Grounded wildlife like to eat the scattered seed around the birdfeeder. Be aware that, if mice are attracted, they in turn can attract snakes. Just as you appreciate the shelter and shade provided by trees and bushes close to the house, animals and insects appreciate these benefits also.

Perhaps you are fascinated by any kind of wildlife and seek to attract more than songbirds onto your property or onto your deck. This may give you viewing pleasure but can make potential problems. IDNR Biologist, Bob Bluett, points out that food put out to attract wildlife may bring unwanted visitors, such as coyotes who may eat a neighbor’s pet terrier in addition to the dog food set out on the porch.  Or maybe you do want that constantly barking pet terrier gone.  Is that why you are trying to attract the coyotes?

Intentionally feeding wildlife, other than birds, has other problems. Deer, rabbits, and squirrels attracted to your property can destroy plants in the name of fine dining. Be suspicious when a wild animal becomes too friendly – this may indicate that the animal is not healthy.

“Don’t forget that any food source – even if you don’t call it food – might attract uninvited dinner guests,” reminds McFarland. “Compost piles, a bag of grass seed in the shed, the old steak bones around your dog house…anything a creature in the wild might enjoy in the woods is also fair game in your backyard.”

Feeding wildlife and providing habitat is a good thing. However, be sure to manage your guest list carefully.

Information is adapted from an article by the Della Moen Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation.