- Associated Press - Sunday, February 7, 2016

ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) - A new five-year ecological restoration program that aims to increase the pheasant population can also provide farmers with an alternative to long-term Conservation Reserve Program commitments.

Saline Soils for Pheasants was created by Pheasants Forever to reduce soil salt concentrations in South Dakota’s fields, the Aberdeen American News (http://bit.ly/1PSIEeQ ) reported. High salt content is detrimental to both crop production and wildlife habitat.

Sam Fryman, a farm bill biologist in Spink County, said the program also was designed to help landowners who don’t want to enroll their land into lengthier CRP contracts.

“It’s going to be a working man’s program,” Fryman said. “One of the complaints we’ve heard with the Conservation Reserve programs for a long time is there’s no utilization of the land. We’re trying to target these problem areas while addressing those complaints.”

The program offers farmers a one-time payment of $150 for every enrolled acre under a five-year contract. Normal CRP contracts are 10 or 15 years. With those, farmers get annual payments.

Matt Morlock, state assistant director of Pheasants Forever, said the program will be funded by a $200,000 grant from the South Dakota Conservation Fund, which was awarded to Pheasants Forever earlier this month specifically for the new program.

Applications for the program are expected to be available in March and will target Brown, Spink and Beadle counties, with enrollment limited to a total of 1,025 qualified acres.

“Our hopes are that we can make this a bigger, wide-reaching program,” Morlock said. “Those three counties seem to have the highest concentration of saline soils in them. So we wanted to start there and show what we can do and not only provide them with habitat, but it’s part of a bigger effort that will help producers.”

Pheasants Forever supplies farmers with free perennial grass and alfalfa seed to plant in the enrolled land. Biologists use a soil sample test to determine if the land is eligible for enrollment.

Farmers can enroll as many as 40 acres in the program. Ben Lardy, a biologist with Pheasants Forever, said the grasses planted will help move the salt left behind by evaporated water deeper into the ground.

Fields where salt problems are just beginning need around five years to be restored, while more severe problems areas can take up to 10 years, according to Lardy.

“If you see that little bit of white crust in a low spot in the field, that’s salt,” he said. “South of Groton, especially, you’ll see a lot of these. That’s when it gets really bad.”

Left unchecked, Lardy said the salt can start to spread and create all sorts of problems.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of salt to start injuring crop yields. The more salt you have in the soil, the more it hinders the nutrients’ movements into the plant,” Lardy said.

“We wanted to create a program that would address those areas with declining pheasant populations and also be user-friendly for farmers and ranchers alike,” he said.

Pheasants benefit from the additional nesting habitat the grasses provide, but it’s the alfalfa that might also help farmers in a big way - by bringing back the declining honey bee population. That, in turn, could help pollinate the farmer’s neighboring crops.

“Alfalfa is a tremendous foraging source for honey bees and honey producers,” Lardy said. “Adequate foraging areas are a concern in this area as well. We wanted to make sure we had that included in the mix. Just about any type of wildlife is going to benefit from this site.”

He said farmers are allowed to harvest the hay and grass after July 15 or end of the pheasant nesting period.

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Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com

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