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Winter Wheat: The Duck-Friendly Crop

New partnership is a win-win for farmers and waterfowl
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—Steve Adair, Ph.D.

A new partnership between Ducks Unlimited and Bayer CropScience has great potential to dramatically increase winter wheat acres across the U.S. and Canadian prairies. This partnership, Winter Cereals: Sustainability in Action, is an education and research initiative, which promotes improving agricultural productivity while maintaining wildlife habitat. Incorporating winter wheat and reduced tillage on existing croplands will boost the fall waterfowl flight and create a more sustainable prairie landscape.

To be successful on the breeding grounds, ducks need abundant, healthy wetlands and extensive nesting cover. Healthy wetlands provide rich food resources to meet the nutritional requirements of laying and incubating females. Female dabbling ducks nest in uplands up to a mile from their "home pond." Extensive research by DU and our partners has shown that nest success improves as the percentage of grassland increases on the land surrounding the nest. After ducklings hatch, females lead them back to wetlands where they gorge on insects and hide in dense cover to avoid predators. When these habitat features are in place, waterfowl populations fluctuate naturally with precipitation cycles.

For thousands of years, these requisite wetlands and associated nesting cover were provided in the Prairie Pothole Region's native grasslands. When runoff from a thick blanket of winter snow fills prairie wetlands, waterfowl populations flourish. When conditions are drier, many waterfowl overfly the prairies and persist in the parklands and boreal forest.

Native grasslands continue to provide the backbone of North America's waterfowl production, and conserving them is one of DU's highest priorities. However, beginning in the late 1800s, the grasslands in the deeper soils of the Prairie Pothole Region began to fall to the plow to feed a growing human population. This conversion has continued so that today most of the eastern prairies are extensively cultivated.

Breeding pairs of ducks continue to be attracted to wetlands in the eastern prairies, but most nests are destroyed by predators searching thin strips of cover around wetlands or by farm machinery working crop fields in the spring. It is in these landscapes that optimism must be balanced with realism. With growing world demand for grain, it is highly unlikely that native grasslands will return to the eastern prairies in the foreseeable future. So what can we do where there is no grass? Enter alternative nesting covers.

When commodity prices are down, landowners are often attracted to less risky land uses like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). This Farm Bill program pays landowners to plant marginal cropland back to grassland under 10- or 15-year contracts. For the past two decades, CRP has added nesting cover to cropped prairie landscapes and provided a significant boost to waterfowl populations. With recent increases in commodity prices, CRP has lost some of its appeal, and many landowners have opted not to re-enroll in the program. How do we make up ground on intensively cropped landscapes?

Beginning in the early 1990s, DU staff saw promise in winter wheat. This crop is planted in September, overwinters under the snow, and then grows rapidly as the soil warms in spring. Since there is no cultivation or planting during the nesting season, breeding waterfowl do quite well in winter wheat. In fact, research on the Canadian prairies has shown nest success in winter wheat often exceeds 20 percent. This results in 24 times more nests hatching in winter wheat fields than in spring wheat fields.

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