Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative offers financial incentives for delayed hay, summer pasture stockpiling

Bale of hay

~ Press release issued by the Piedmont Environmental Council

WARRENTON, Oct. 17 — Now through Nov 15, 2022, the Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative (VGBI) is accepting applications for its 2023 financial incentives program.

Entering its second year, VGBI provides incentives for producers and landowners who adopt either of two specific best management practices that protect grassland birds during their vulnerable nesting season. Qualifying producers can receive up to $35 per acre for: 1) delaying their first cut of hay until July 1, 2023 or later, and/or 2) rotating livestock out of select fields from April 15 to July 1, 2023 or later. In addition to protecting nesting habitat, these practices can also be used strategically to stockpile forage for late summer grazing, rest and re-seed fields, and reduce feed expenses.

“Delaying the first hay cutting until at least early July is a game-changer for our grassland birds because it allows the bulk of them to fledge at least one successful clutch of young. That quickly changes a hayfield from being a site of population loss to one of population gain,” says October Greenfield, VGBI co-coordinator and PEC wildlife habitat coordinator. Meanwhile, rotating livestock out of select fields in the early spring and allowing those fields to rest until early summer, a practice called summer pasture stockpiling, is proving to be beneficial for cattle, soil health, and producer profitability, in addition to providing improved grassland bird nesting habitat.

The program is open to 16 counties across the northern Virginia Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Shenandoah Valley, and a minimum 20-acre commitment is required. Most grassland bird species require wide expanses of grasses for nesting, so acreage that mimics a large, contiguous patch of grassland—distant from thick forest edges and human development—is best suited for this program.

“With the majority of remaining grasslands in Virginia currently held in private hands and under agricultural use, VGBI gives farmers the opportunity to become partners in conservation by implementing grassland bird-friendly agricultural practices. We work with farmers to create conservation plans that protect grassland birds while simultaneously supporting their production goals,” Greenfield explains. To learn more about the program and to apply, visit: vagrasslandbirds.org/incentives/.

In its first year, nine producers formally enrolled 500 acres of land in the program. In addition, four landowners implemented delayed haying or summer pasture stockpiling voluntarily, without the program’s financial incentives, on another 1,306 acres. Increased funding from the Cornell Land Trust Bird Conservation Initiative and VGBI’s growing partnerships are allowing expansion of the program in 2023. Producers interested in adopting one or both of these practices without the financial incentive, or who are already managing for delayed haying and/or summer pasture stockpiling, are asked to report their acreage at vagrasslandbirds.org/incentives/ to be included in VGBI’s annual reports.

Native grasslands have suffered more intense impact by humans than any other North American terrestrial ecosystem. In response, remaining grassland birds have adopted hayfields and pasturelands as surrogate habitat. Grassland bird conservation, therefore, falls largely on private landowners and farmers. By working with producers to implement a suite of best management practices, VGBI strives to stem the tide of grassland bird decline, improve the resiliency of working landscapes, and positively impact the livelihoods that depend upon those lands.

Tim Mize, of the Virginia Cooperative Extension and a member of VGBI’s steering committee is excited to see this program gaining traction. “Although at times they seem at odds, livestock agriculture and wildlife conservation can benefit one another. It just seems obvious to me that this program is a win/win scenario for both,” he said.

Sam Grant, who leases pastures at Francis Mill Farm in Loudoun County and participated in the summer pasture stockpiling is pleased with the results so far. “The best of this program is how little impact it had on my normal grazing schedule. I delayed grazing the field until mid-July with no negative impact, and the morning visits from birders were discreet and pleasant.”

Fritz Reuter at Little Milan in Fauquier County appreciated the ecological benefits. “Delayed cutting correlates nicely with the timing of when our native warm season grasses are most active and can outcompete dormant vegetation like fescue and orchard grass.”

The Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative is a partnership of Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes, The Piedmont Environmental Council, American Farmland Trust, and Quail Forever.

Since 1972, The Piedmont Environmental Council has proudly promoted and protected the natural resources, rural economy, history and beauty of the Virginia Piedmont. PEC empowers residents to protect what makes the Piedmont a wonderful place, and works with citizens to conserve land, improve air and water quality and build thriving communities. PEC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and accredited land trust. Learn more at www.pecva.org

Virginia Working Landscapes is a program convened by the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute (NZCBI) to promote the conservation of native biodiversity and encourage the sustainable use of working landscapes through research, education, and outreach.

American Farmland Trust is the only national organization that takes a holistic approach to agriculture, focusing on the land itself, the agricultural practices used on that land, and the farmers and ranchers who do the work. AFT launched the conservation agriculture movement and continues to raise public awareness through our No Farms, No Food message. Since our founding in 1980, AFT has helped permanently protect over 6.8 million acres of agricultural lands, advanced environmentally-sound farming practices on millions of additional acres and supported thousands of farm families.    

Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever make up the nation’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to upland habitat conservation. This community of more than 400,000 members, supporters and partners is dedicated to the protection of our uplands through habitat improvement, public access, education and advocacy. A network of 754 local chapters spread across North America determine how 100 percent of their locally raised funds are spent — the only national conservation organization that operates through this grassroots structure. Since its creation in 1982, the organization has dedicated more than $1 billion to 567,500 habitat projects benefiting 22 million acres.

Map of 16 county Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative service area.

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