- Associated Press - Sunday, May 21, 2017

MINDEN, Neb. (AP) - Spring planting season involves more than corn and soybeans for some Nebraska farmers.

It’s also a time to plant trees and shrubs as windbreaks that protect farmsteads, fields and livestock facilities, and add native grasses to create wildlife habitat on corners of pivot-irrigated cropland.

“We need to keep these trees growing, keep conservation projects going,” farmer Marshall Paulsen said during a driving tour of projects he’s undertaken the past 21 years on his farm southeast of Minden. They include re-purposing pivot corners in 1996, 2002 and 2007 in cooperation with the Holdrege-based Tri-Basin Natural Resources District and Pheasants Forever, and planting windbreaks in 2005 and 2015.

“We never had quail here when I grew up,” Paulsen said as two quail ran through pivot corner grass in front of his pickup. “…The upland birds and deer come in here. You drive up here in the summer and see birds.”

Although he likes to hunt and fish, he said restoring habit now is more about enjoying birds that are attracted to the trees, shrubs and grasses. The pivot corners “aren’t picturesque,” he added, but the plants have grown well there.

One incentive to turn the corners into wildlife habitat was the difficulty in farming them. Paulsen said his converted corners are on rough ground and in the hard-to-access middle of fields.

“There’s a lot of land around that could be used for this kind of deal,” he said.

Paulsen enhanced his windbreaks by planting fruit trees along with more typical windbreak plants such as red cedars and honeysuckle.

Paulsen and Tri-Basin Land Resources Manager Charlie Brooks said the tree and shrub programs offered by Nebraska’s NRDs help mitigate the loss of wildlife habitat as old farmsteads were cleared to install pivot irrigation systems.

“It was started to help rural farmers provide shelter for livestock. It was an offshoot of the old SCS (Soil Conservation Service) effort to plant trees for windbreaks after the Dust Bowl years,” Brooks said about NRD tree programs offered in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Although interest in converting pivot corners to wildlife habitat has waned in recent years, traditional windbreaks still have habitat benefits, he said.

“We’ve mainly just gone to windbreaks for building sites,” Brooks said as he watched red cedar and ponderosa pine trees, and chokecherry shrubs being planted at such a site southwest of Kearney this week. “… Ten years ago, we would have three pivot corners at least every year. We’re a victim of these new corn varieties that are drought tolerant and of a wetter weather pattern.”

Tri-Basin contracts with Jaeger Enterprises of Ogallala for spring tree and shrub planting on farms in Kearney, Phelps and Gosper counties. Kerri Jaeger, who leads a 10-member crew, said she and her husband, Josh, did volunteer planting for Pheasants Forever in 1994 and decided in 1997 to go into the contracting business.

The process starts by creating a furrow. Drip tape is unrolled into the furrow bottom and individual trees or shrubs are put into the furrow by a person seated on a tractor-pulled planter. A second smaller tractor pulls a custom unit from which a porous fabric conservation mulch is unrolled on top of the closed furrow. Slits are cut in the fabric for the seedling tops.

Brooks said landowners can learn about tree planting at local NRD or NRCS offices. “We’ll get together with them and write up a plan,” he said.

Tri-Basin offers a 50 percent cost share for windbreaks.

Pheasants Forever’s Corners for Wildlife program has a 75 percent cost-share for seed and wildlife shrubs and a five-year payment of up to $100 per acre, per year, the Kearney Hub (http://bit.ly/2pQz23x ) reported. Participating NRDs, including Tri-Basin, provide free planting.

“It’s best to start thinking about it in November,” Brooks said. “But we can put a lot of plans together in March yet.” There usually is an on-site visit after a plan is completed.

Landowners must prepare the planting sites. “You disk it or till it a little bit to get it ready for next spring,” Paulsen said, and then go over it again closer to planting time.

Brooks said seedlings for all plans prepared by Tri-Basin and NRCS are ordered by NRD staff, with most trees purchased from the Bessey Tree Nursery at the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.

“Sometimes there is a shortage or they have a failure, and we have to supplement” from other nurseries, he added.

Plants are picked up or delivered around April 1 and stored at 35 degrees in Tri-Basin’s tree cooler - a converted truck box. Brooks said the seedlings are sorted, boxed and labeled with each landowner’s name.

Most NRDs offer the same plant species, but each may have its own program features and costs. Brooks said trees, the fabric mulch and planting costs $1.50 per foot in the Tri-Basin counties, with drip tape another 35 cents per foot.

Approximately 30,000 linear feet of tree and shrubs were planted this week, which he said compares with 35,000 last year. “We could go 40,000 to 50,000. They (the contractor) would stay for as long as we could plant,” Brooks said.

Paulsen said he waters some new plantings the first year if the weather was dry. “A lot of trees seem to make it under that fabric mulch,” he said, which allows moisture to collect and stay around the plants.

In years when trees are still small, but growing, he might mow around them, and he makes sure they aren’t buried by snowdrifts.

“Like kids, it’s fun watching them grow, and then they’re on their own,” Paulsen said. “… You do one project and it kind of leads to another. You see the benefits.”

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Information from: Kearney Hub, http://www.kearneyhub.com/

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