Certified hay protects endangered birds

Many of Ontario’s species at risk – such as grassland birds – make their homes in farmers’ fields.

In honour of Earth Day this week, here’s a glimpse at a program that lets rural landowners do their part to protect those species.

Attempts to protect habitats for grassland birds can be a hard sell to farmers, especially if it involves taking existing fields out of production.

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC), however, is hoping for a more positive response to a project that it has just launched to expand habitat areas for endangered grassland bird species like the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark.

That’s because it involves bringing former farmland back into agricultural production by linking non-farming landowners with local farmers who are interested in growing hay for horse or other livestock owners who want later-cut hay.

In the Credit Valley watershed, which is roughly bound by Orangeville in the north, Acton in the west, Lake Ontario in the south and Caledon to the east, many rural, non-farm landowners are living on farmland that is no longer being farmed.

This means it’s gradually reverting to its natural state, and as thorns and shrubs start to move in, the land becomes unsuitable as habitat for grassland birds.

“We’re not asking farmers to convert their existing hay land into habitat but asking non-farm landowners if they would be interested in being matched with a local farmer who is willing to grow hay with delayed cutting practices,” explains Mark Eastman, CVC’s Agricultural Extension Program Coordinator. “We also want to match those farmers with end consumers, such as horse owners, boarding facilities or livestock farmers that sell directly to consumers, so there is a market for that hay.”

The matchmaking program is only one component of the three-year project that is being funded through the Species at Risk Stewardship Fund.

The project also includes compiling an inventory of where grassland birds are in the watershed and focusing on grassland restoration, which Eastman says involves rural landowners not abandoning their land to its natural state, but rather managing it so that it can benefit both birds and farmers.

A consultant is preparing a market analysis that will evaluate the concept of a grassland bird-friendly hay product and determine, through interviews with landowners, farmers and end users of hay, what kind of market potential may exist, if any.

“Although it could, we don’t necessarily believe the hay has to sell at a premium. It is the access to land that may pique the interest of farmers,” says Eastman. “Hay prices have been high so this could be a desire for some of our producers.”

“We see the greatest potential for this with landowner land. We value agricultural land in the landscape and with this program, we can help bring farmland back into production that would otherwise be lost,” he adds. “So yes, it’s an opportunity for grassland birds, but it’s also an opportunity for farmers who are willing to do later cut hay to access land.”

He estimates about 10 per cent of the agricultural land base in the CVC watershed is currently in the early successional meadow stages.

Many non-farm landowners automatically assume the best thing they can do from an environmental perspective is to cease farming and allow natural succession to progress or to plant trees, but agriculture can be an option, even for lands that are designated as environmentally sensitive.

“If you have lands that are sensitive, don’t rule out agriculture. You can still use the land for agriculture under certain conditions that will work for certain farmers. With grassland birds, for example, it can be a win-win,” he says. “We have two properties under our ownership now where we hope to work out these kinds of arrangements with farmers.”

If the results of the market analysis are positive, CVC will be developing an online networking tool over the winter that will allow hay growers, buyers and landowners to register and share contact information.

They are hoping for 10 to 12 producers to become involved with the project over the next couple of years.

Eastman says the project was originally meant to be a conversion program of existing hay fields to a new form of delayed hay cutting, but CVC officials soon realized that would be a non-starter with farmers in the area who depend on high quality, high protein hay for their livestock.

“We like the idea of having agriculture as part of the solution to the problem and having grassland birds residing in these areas, but also taking pressure off dairy producers who do their first cut alfalfa in June,” he says. “This project may not work the same in all watersheds, but it has a good shot of working here as we have a lot of farmland that is not currently being farmed and a large hay market.”

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