Making hay with the birds

June 19, 2020

As some of you may know, Canada is in a state of crisis when it comes to grassland birds. Grassland populations have declined by 57% since 1970, according to the North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2019 report on the state of Canada's birds. For the bobolink specifically, the decline has been particularly steep. Populations have dropped up to 88% in the past few decades.

A few trends related to agriculture are helping this along including a steady decline in grassland acreage due to urbanization and conversion of grasslands into row crop production as well as earlier harvest of grass and legume crops.   These factors ensure increasing decimation of nests and habitats for the bobolink. 

At Doublejay Farms, we've started to take stock of what we can do to provide sanctuary for the bobolinks and other grassland birds.  Whether we are out walking the fields or haying, we often see the endangered bobolink swaying gracefully atop the tall grasses in our fields.  As a start, increasing the acreage we use for grazing versus hay helps, according to the Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, in its brochure "Farming with Grassland Birds".  For the past two years, we've also been cutting our hay differently as well.  Bobolinks tend to nest away from the trees at the sides of fields to stay well clear of predators who lurk there like raccoons and foxes.  We've begun cutting only the outsides of fields during the bobolink nesting period between mid-May and mid-July (see picture).

Bobolink-Haying.jpg

This approach is not without problems.  Hay harvested after the 15th of July is significantly lower in nutritional quality.  The grass and legumes mature and put fewer nutrients into their leaves (the parts the cows like!) and more into their more indigestible stems and seeds.  However, on our operation, we have been able to balance our nutritional needs by securing nutritious hay from the outsides of the fields early on and getting a late second cut in the fall.  In the winter, we can then mix our higher quality hay with the lower quality late cut hay from mid-July.  A key aspect to this strategy is breeding hardy beef cattle that are able to successfully overwinter on lower quality feed.

Our society often has an efficiency at any cost mindset.  It's past time, with converging ecological and social crises, that we slow down and make "sacrifices" that are better for the earth.  But the truth is, more biodiversity, more bird species and better habitats aren't a sacrifice.  They are part and parcel of a better, healthier farm, ecosystem and culture.

Tim Dowling

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