By Chrystal Houston, Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District
Pictured Above: Farmer Alex Daake and dog Bella on his property near Beaver Crossing.
It’s a frigid winter morning near Beaver Crossing, Nebraska. Fresh snow has fallen during the night covering the few inches already on the ground. The temp is in the 20s, but the wind is whipping so fast across the prairie that it feels much colder. The sky is overcast and sullen. The only movement is the snow skittering in sheets across the road and the herd of black angus cattle slowly grazing the winter stubble in a nearby field.
It’s a wrench to get out of the warm cab of the truck on a day like this, but I’m here to explore a small section of wilderness on the property of third-generation Nebraska farmer Alex Daake. Alex is one of the landowners in the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District who is taking advantage of the Corners for Wildlife Program, which provides landowners the opportunity to help establish wildlife habitat on center pivot corners not capable of sustaining high yields when planted to row crops. The program is a win-win arrangement, as landowners receive an annual payment for five years for the converted cropland and animal populations are given a new home.
Pheasant in Nebraska, courtesy of Pheasants Forever
Wildlife habitat loss is a concern in Nebraska where 97 percent of land is privately-owned and 93 percent of land is used for production agriculture. There are few wild areas remaining where animals have the necessary habitat to thrive. Addressing that problem is the motivation for the Corners for Wildlife program, which is offered through a partnership with Pheasants Forever, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Nebraska Environmental Trust, and the Upper Big Blue NRD.
The Corners for Wildlife program was introduced in Nebraska in 1995. Currently there are 13,463 acres across the state participating in the program. In the Upper Big Blue NRD, there are 48 Corners for Wildlife areas representing 226 acres. According to Mary Patten with Pheasants Forever, 70 percent of these properties remain in grass cover after the contract expires. “We search to identify landowners that are passionate about wildlife and not just interested in a payment,” says Patten. “Our hope is that the project stays as habitat at the conclusion of the contract.”
“It’s hard to take good productive ground and not make money on it. But marginal corners and lowlands, rather than lose money on trying to farm those few acres every year, you might as well just plant some grass there and give it back to nature,” said Alex, noting that the Corners for Wildlife area on his property is sloped and was always challenging to farm anyway. Alex’s father and farming partner, Dave Daake, established the property in the Corners for Wildlife program 20 years ago. Since that time, it’s become a haven for game birds as well as other animals.
Dave Daake fills a semi with corn on his property near Beaver Crossing.
Today the snow drifts are hip deep as I climb through the ditch that separates the Corners for Wildlife property from the road. The area is covered in tall grasses, bent with snow, and surrounded by shelterbelt of cedars. Though the wind is blowing hard enough to nearly knock me off my feet, once I step inside the area protected by the line of trees, the air is still. Its bleak and silent on this midwinter morning and all the world seems asleep. However, animal tracks cover the fresh snow. Something clearly lives here. I’m not the only creature thankful for the windbreak.
Pheasants are surprisingly hearty and can survive the extreme temps of the prairie winter, as long as they have high quality habitat like this one and sufficient waste grain in fields to dine on through the cold weather months. Alex and others hunt pheasants as well as quail on this property. Alex notes the humans aren’t the only predators—he’s spotted a pack of coyotes in the area.
Animal tracks in the snow at the Corners for Wildlife area at Alex Daake's farm.
I leave the wildlife sanctuary to relocate to warmer quarters inside Alex’s workshop. A large heater blasts a channel of warmth, keeping the workspace tolerable if not quite toasty. Alex is meeting with NRD Forestry Manager Ken Feather to discuss a new windbreak project that will eventually protect his cattle on days like today. While he recognizes he won’t see the full benefit of the additional trees for a few years, it’s a long-term investment he is keen to make.
“You see a lot of windbreaks that are getting torn out,” Alex says, shaking his head. “Planting trees is good. If you tear out a windbreak, you should put one back in.” The trees will be helpful for his cattle and will provide additional habitat for wildlife. The NRD Conservation Tree Program offers low cost trees in bulk, plus planting services, to make it easy and affordable to add, restore, or extend windbreaks in the district.
Corners for Wildlife isn’t the only conservation project on the Daake family’s property. Just down the road we meet up with Dave Daake, seemingly impervious to the cold as he fills a semi with corn. He’s farmed here since 1979 and finding ways to make the property profitable and environmentally sustainable has long been his goal. In addition to his active cropland, Dave owns 46 acres of wetland under a conservation easement with Ducks Unlimited. “It’s a hard place to farm, so this is the best use for the land,” he says. “A lot of duck hunters use it every year.”
Corners for Wildlife area and windbreak at Alex Daake's farm.
Dave has been incorporating no-till farming on this land for 20 to 25 years. “I started out slow and eventually fell in love with it. When you don’t have to disc, it sure cuts your time down,” says Dave. For the last 15 years they’ve been exclusively no-till, a practice which benefits nesting birds as it provides improved habitat in the fields.
“I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t no-till…we’re having above average yield compared to the people around us. I would never go back to tilling,” Dave says.
Now father and son are turning their attention to another conservation practice—cover cropping. Cover crops are usually planted to prevent erosion and increase soil health as well as nutrient availability for cash crops, but they can also provide valuable habitat and food for various wildlife. Dave has used turnips as cover crop with his seed corn for 10 years and is now introducing rye as well. “Start slow and make sure you can keep up with it,” is his philosophy when it comes to new farming practices.
Alex is excited about cover crops, too. “My goal is to put cover crops on all of my acres. Studies show there’s a real benefit to it,” he says. And what benefits the farm’s bottom line as well as the land, well that’s a no brainer for the Daakes.
For more information on the Corners for Wildlife Program or the Conservation Tree Program, visit https://www.upperbigblue.org/forestry-parks.