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Published May 13, 2013, 10:56 AM

Finding the balance

The needs of both crop production and wildlife are important.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Last summer, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I walked through a soybean field along North Dakota’s Sheyenne River. The plants were green and healthy; the fledgling crop looked good. But in a patch of the field nearest the river, many of the plants were missing most of their leaves and nubs. Years of experience told me where to place the blame.

That evening, just before dusk, I happened to drive past the same field. From a distance, I spotted a dozen deer on the edge of the river woods. Emboldened by the gathering darkness, they were inching out of the woods and returning to the soybeans.

The deer enjoyed many fine meals on that field during the summer. The farmer, of course, harvested fewer beans that fall.

The deer and soybean field reflect a longstanding dilemma on the Northern Plains. How do we balance what’s good for crops with what’s good for wildlife?

As is often the case with longstanding dilemmas, there are two legitimate sides to this one.

You understand one side if you’ve ever been part of a farming operation or a business connected to production agriculture. You understand how wildlife and wildlife habitat can hurt yields and profitability.

You understand the other side if you’ve ever seen the pleasure that hunting gives to countless Americans or the economic benefit it brings to some rural communities. You understand why many people are anxious to preserve and enhance hunting opportunities in this part of the world.

Groups such as Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited are particularly concerned about certain species of wildlife. They’re passionate about maintaining and expanding habitat for those species. Though I don’t share that passion, I understand and respect it.

I also understand why landowners want to farm land that might otherwise provide wildlife habitat. With soybeans fetching $13 per bushel and corn bringing nearly $6 per bushel, there’s plenty of incentive to raise crops.

In the past few years, strong crop prices have led landowners to take millions of acres that had been in the Conservation Reserve Program and put it back into crop production. The trend could continue this year, with roughly 850,000 CRP acres in North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana expected to expire at year’s end.

CRP’s goals include enhancing wildlife habitat, so less land in the program naturally concerns wildlife organizations.

Fighting the good fight

To their credit, the wildlife organizations are responding positively and constructively to the decline in CRP acres. They’re trying to educate farmers and landlords about strategies that benefit both crop production and wildlife.

One example: Ducks Unlimited has worked long and hard to promote winter wheat on the Northern Plains.

Winter wheat is planted in the fall, goes dormant in the winter and resumes growing in the spring. There’s no cultivation or planting during the nesting season, so winter wheat fields are good for breeding waterfowl.

For farmers, winter wheat can bring a number of benefits, including spreading out the work load.

Balancing the needs of wildlife and crops isn’t easy. I don’t know what the right balance is. But I know that the odds of finding it improve when farmers and wildlife groups work together.