Can Cattle And Birds Co-Exist?

A study by ISU researchers shows careful pasture management can benefit both cattle and birds. The idea is to find a way for landowners to make money both on the cattle and the birds in their pastures. Compiled by staff

Published on: Jan 23, 2004

A study by Iowa State University researchers shows careful pasture management can benefit both cattle and birds. In an effort to link better bird habitat to recreational opportunities, the study also looked at interest among farmers in allowing hunting or other recreational uses on their land.

The one-year project was funded by two ISU centers, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Iowa Beef Center. It included a study of birds at the ISU McNay Research and Demonstration Farm near Chariton.

The southern Iowa farm has 20 pastures that range in size from three to nine acres, with six of them in warm season grasses and the rest in cool season grasses and forbs. For the study, two cow-calf herds were moved through the paddocks as pasture conditions dictated.

Longer-term pasture rotation plan would help

Birds were identified and counted in each paddock during the prime nesting season of mid-May through June. This was done five days a week, just after dawn. "We found 36 species of birds in the pastures, and another six in woody shrubs and trees nearby," says Jim Pease, ISU Extension wildlife specialist. "It's the most meadowlarks and bobolinks I've seen since I was a kid."

When cattle were rotated into a pasture, species numbers and numbers of individual birds dropped rapidly. Both cool-season and warm-season grass pastures attracted birds. But Pease says the study showed a longer-term pasture rotation plan that leaves some pastures ungrazed during the nesting season would help cattle and birds co-exist.

"Warm season grass and forb pastures, if carefully managed, can provide important nesting cover for birds during the growing season and valuable forage for cattle later in the summer," he says. "Cool season grass and forb pastures provide similar value to birds but only if grazing can be delayed until late June or early July."

Would you sell hunting rights on CRP ground?

Another part of the project involved a survey of 270 landowners in four southern Iowa counties - Lucas, Van Buren, Davis and Montgomery. Dan Otto, economics professor, and John Lawrence, director of the Iowa Beef Center and associate economics professor, conducted the survey.

Sixty-six percent of those surveyed have land in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Thirty-three percent say they would be willing to sell hunting easements on their CRP acres if the program isn't renewed. When asked what policy changes might encourage them to allow more hunting on their land, the top three items chosen were direct payments, selective haying and grazing of CRP land and tax incentives.

Survey data still is being analyzed. "We're trying to identify what we have here in Iowa that interests people who enjoy natural resources, and then find ways to make those resources more accessible," Lawrence says. "If we develop multiple land uses, such as grazing and recreation, we will generate more economic opportunities. We're looking for local solutions."