Miles and Moana Monarch

It’s been a long summer of focusing on the monarch butterfly. I work for Illinois farmers and often find myself thinking, “I can’t believe I’m spending this much time thinking about one species… A butterfly that is actually a terrible pollinator – and one that doesn’t pollinate any food crops that are important for humans.” Yet there I was, going to meetings, hosting conference calls, looking at models and reading research. Trying to understand the Endangered Species Act and what the implications of a listing might mean for our farmer members.

The process has been bumpy. Lots of people are involved – and not necessarily the right people. The timeline is so quick that everyone is rushing to put things down on paper about how we’re all going to save the monarch. Single pieces of research are being used to create simplistic models about stems of milkweed. I left each meeting this summer worried about where this might go – always trying to think about unintended consequences.

The process is not over – remember we’re on this road for another 20 months or so. I think my greatest concern is – and has been – the process being used by our agencies to get us to June 2019. Illinois farmers (or me, on their behalf) have to be at the table for these discussions. Improving monarch populations will require two things:

– increasing and improving habitat (milkweed and wildflowers), and

– decreasing risk to monarchs (changing mowing and pesticide practices).

Both of those things will involve farmer participation (and farmers’ land) in order to see success. If you read recent research, there are expectations that half of the 1.6 billion stems of milkweed needed will need to come from agricultural land. Crop land. So yeah, I’m at the table participating in these discussions.

And I’ve got to be honest, I was frustrated. The rules are confusing and the Endangered Species Act is flawed. And I’m someone who has spent significant time on this issue. How are regular citizens and our farmer members supposed to understand this issue? So I had a bad taste in my mouth.

That’s when my husband’s family took our daughter to find monarch caterpillars on their newly planted patch of milkweed in the garden. They found three caterpillars and put them in a Tupperware container. We quickly took over their care, and it was a lot of work! The caterpillars doubled in size every night. They poop a lot and they eat a lot. That’s their job during that time. When they actually each spun their chrysalis, I was flabbergasted.

You see, I work for farmers, but most things I try to grow myself – outside of my children, thank goodness – don’t make it very far.

And yet there were three beautiful green chrysalis with the prettiest gold flecks. My daughter and I checked on them often, although I’m not sure a 2-year-old can really see what a feat it is to do what they do.

This morning the green chrysalis had turned dark and you could see orange beneath the paper thin shell. By this afternoon two new monarchs were flapping their wings and crawling around in a tiny container.

(Our third caterpillar has been a few days behind the other two at reaching each milestone).

My daughter was amazed. I was amazed. It is mind-blowing actually, to think about what those tiny caterpillars do by just eating milkweed for a few days.

I’m so glad we did this. Just look at the face on this brave girl!

So we named our new friends – Miles and Moana Monarch – and turned them loose in an area with plenty of nectar resources.

I’m sitting here writing this actually worrying about them on the monumental trek they’re about the make to the forests of Mexico.

 

So I get it. I do. Monarchs are special. And if we have an opportunity to save them, we should. But that simple statement isn’t really reflected by the Endangered Species Act and all of the hoopla around conservation databases and models and allocations of milkweed. How did we get so far down a road of paperwork and litigation over something that I think most people can agree on?

Hopefully there are opportunities in the near future to reform the Endangered Species Act and get us back to something that strikes a balance between protecting important species and protecting livelihoods.

More to come – thanks for reading. Goodnight!

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What’s going on with the monarch butterfly?

Pollinators_Butterfly02Y’all. I have been planning this blog post for weeks now. And maybe its because I’m new to blogging, but this issue is changing so fast that every time I sat down to write this post, I wanted to make sure I had all the information I could so I could pass it along to my followers. But I’m learning more every day, and so at some point you just have to pull the trigger and write the post.

I’ve been attending meetings about the monarch butterfly for 9 months now, and sometimes it baffles my mind that I’m spending so much of my time focusing on one species of butterfly. Yes, we have been hearing a lot about pollinators in recent years, mostly native and managed honeybees, and we are all aware that population changes are occurring and people are starting to try to better understand why (hint: its complicated).

The monarch butterfly is a different issue in that it involves the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the Endangered Species Act (Act). The USFWS is considering listing the monarch butterfly as a threatened or endangered species under the Act. The agency was petitioned and failed to meet their statutory obligations under the Act so was sued and settled with the plaintiffs. They must now make their decision about listing the monarch by June 2019. That process is actually the easy part to understand, in my opinion.

June of 2019 is two years away, but a lot will happen in the meantime. There is an opportunity here – for Illinois agriculture and other stakeholders who would be impacted by a listing – to convince the USFWS that a listing is not necessary. This is where it gets hairy. The USFWS will go through a process of evaluating many things over the next two years: the current status of the monarch butterfly population and the status of its habitat, current conservation efforts on the ground, planned conservation efforts, and the science behind all of it. How we accomplish providing that information is messy and confusing. There will be a “Mid-Continental Monarch Conservation Strategy”, written by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (MAFWA), which is a collection of state wildlife agencies (in Illinois that would be our Department of Natural Resources). There will be a Species Status Assessment (SSA), written by the USFWS. There will also be a Conservation Efforts Database (CED) that is created by the USFWS and populated by stakeholders. A similar database was used when the USFWS was considering listing the sage grouse out west (it did not get listed). In addition to those, individual states (IA, MO, TX) within the monarch flyway are crafting their own monarch conservation plans that they hope will serve to provide assurances if the monarch does in fact get listed.

These efforts are overlapping and will happen over the next two years. The first draft of the Mid-Continental Monarch Conservation Strategy will be done in 5 months! So things are happening fast.

My job is to be at the table during these discussions and make sure that our farmer members are represented. I’ve outline three goals for myself:

  1. My first goal is to convince the USFWS that listing the monarch is not necessary. To do that, I will make sure that they understand the impressive conservation efforts taken by Illinois farmers. We have the second highest number of acres in the country for the Conservation Reserve Program Pollinator Habitat program. There are more than 87,000 acres of private lands that have been taken out of production to provide habitat for pollinators. And that is just one program. In order to convince the USFWS, we have to understand the process they have laid out, and write really convincing conservation plans.
  2. My second goal is to make sure that any targets set in these conservation plans, for habitat acres (or milkweed stems!), are reasonable and feasible for our members.
  3. My third goal is to put Illinois farmers in the best position, should the monarch get listed. I will actively pursue assurances for our farmer members so they can continue to grow food and fiber without fear of repercussions. I acknowledge that much of this decision-making process is out of my control, but I can put us in the best position possible.

Stay tuned for more from me – next post will focus on what a listing might mean for Illinois farmers.

 

Catching up + get ready for planting season

Scenic_MasonCounty142 (002)

My inbox is swarming (pun intended) with events, news articles, and scientific studies about bees and butterflies. It seems that with all things “environmental”, the information comes at us at an increasingly fast pace. And I’m playing catch up a bit. It is my hope that here at The Buzz, we’ll continue to promote good science and good stewardship. I’ve got an interesting post coming up soon about the monarch butterfly and efforts around conserving that species in Illinois. But for now, I’ll leave you with a few announcements and items of interest that have made their way across my desk.

As we head into planting season here in IL, keep in mind good product stewardship. That includes :

  • Reading the label : just a reminder that the label is the LAW. Read the label for every product, for every application. Products and warnings change all the time, so make sure you are up to date with the latest label guidance for all of your products.
  • Communication : communicate with your neighbors that raise bees or specialty crops. You can find those neighbors by visiting DriftWatch (now called FieldWatch).
  • Awareness : check wind speed and direction before applying products to your fields. Document those numbers in your farm records when you do fieldwork.

Interested in raising bees? IL Extension will host a “Backyard Beekeepers” workshop on Saturday, April 15th in Bloomington. Topics include local issues, the state of bee research (presented by Dr. May Berenbaum), bee stings, and bee plants. Register by April 12th, at this link.

If you are interested in creating pollinator habitat on your farm, I recommend subscribing to the Nebraska Pheasants Forever YouTube Channel by going here and clicking on the red button that says “subscribe”. You’ll get an email when there are new videos for viewing. Pete Berthelsen, Director of Habitat Partnerships for Nebraska PF, offers his Habitat Tips video series, which include fireside chats about habitat planning and great outdoor lessons on weeds and what to expect from your habitat.

That’s all for now. Enjoy these rainy days and get your rest while you still can!

Lyndsey

Seeding frozen ground

img_2489Good day everyone! My name is Jeff O’Connor. Welcome to my own little corner of Illinois in Kankakee County. We’re roughly 1 hour south of Chicago. My family has called this area home since the 1870’s and in that time the face of agriculture has changed many times. We are primarily a grain farm with a few specialties in the mix for a little diversity. Non-GMO corn and soybeans are sent overseas to specialty markets and we also raise seed beans for a large seed company. Diversification helps spread out the financial risk of producing ordinary commodity crops. For fun, we produce small amounts of maple syrup, Christmas trees, chickens, and the best free range turkey you’ll find anywhere.

I first became introduced to the Pollinator program two years ago, during a Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) meeting. I’m the current Chairman of our county SWCD, and being involved helps keep me in tune with new conservation programs.  Over the years my family has devoted many acres to water filter strips, farm windbreaks and cover crops. What was attractive about this relatively new pollinator program was twofold. First, it was uniquely designed to help the populations of all pollinators, not just the much talked about honey bees. Secondly, it could be applied to just about any acre of cropland imaginable.

Experience has told all farmers that not every acre is created equal. And not all the acres on a given farm are profitable all the time. In fact, some of those acres being cropped are rarely profitable. Better to idle some of these marginal cropland acres for 10 years and in turn help pollinator populations. If we begin to consider the reduction of fertilizer and chemical inputs on these acres now going to pollinator habitat, then we have a rather large win for the environment.

img_20170202_085439694Planning where to place the pollinator habitat is the relatively img_20170116_093420143simple step in the process. The actual “doing” is very different from how farmers traditionally grow crops. The first big change is the seed. A normal planting rate of Pollinator seed is around 3.5#/acre, and that can include anywhere from 20-30 different varieties of native plants. That’s not easy to spread evenly, so we mix the pollinator seed with 30# of cracked corn to make the process simpler. We use an electric cement mixer to adequately blend the pollinator seed and corn together.

Next, we wait for the correct weather. This is also much different than normal grain production because the optimum time is in the middle of winter. The earlier in the winter the better. We are trying to copy nature here and many of the seeds need cold winter weather to break the seed coat open. This will allow germination to occur in the spring as soon as the weather warms up. The right weather includes frozen ground with little or no snow and light winds. The seed is so light that it can blow a great distance with even moderate winds. When conditions are perfect, you drop everything, and go.

img_20170130_084643780There are many methods to spread the seed evenly and my favorite is to use a tractor and a pendulum spreader. Automatic guidance on the tractor gives me a more uniform pattern over the entire field. This allows me more time to look back at the seeding progress and less time to focus on driving. Unlike typical farming or gardening, all the pollinator seeds need is contact with the soil. Weather will take care of the rest. Cool, in my opinion. Then we wait. The first plants to flower are usually Black Eyed Susans, with new species showing up every month. It will take about 2-3 YEARS for all species to germinate, grow and flower.

It has been a rewarding experience so far to plant pollinator habitat and watch it progress.  It is very different from what any of my ancestors have previously done. But, the needs of the environment have changed and we farmers are helping to fill some of those needs with this program. Now, everyone can enjoy!

How to establish habitat

Hi everyone! My name is JasonCRP Program Bleich (I’m on the left). I’m a Wildlife Biologist with Pheasants Forever (PF), and I work in east central Illinois. Before I worked for PF, I was the Resource Conservationist for the Ford County Soil & Water Conservation District (SWCD).
I have a passion for working in private lands conservation, because I believe that agriculture and wildlife habitat can and do co-exist, and that they benefit one another.

In the last 5 years, pollinator habitat has become a continental phenomenon in the conservation world due to the decline of many pollinator species such as honey bees and monarch butterflies.  Many of our government conservation programs are putting special emphasis on getting pollinator habitat back on the landscape thus incentivizing landowners and farmers to help the cause. Today I’ve been invited to share a “how to” on establishing successful pollinator habitat. I hope you find these tips helpful. My contact information and more resources can be found at the end of this post. Feel free to reach out!

There are 3 vital steps to creating and maintaining successful pollinator projects:

1) Site preparation

2) Seeding timing and methods, and

3) Early successional habitat management.

Without question, the most important step in this process is site preparation.  First, look at what currently exists on the project area.  Pollinator seedings need at least 50% bare ground… and the more bare ground, the better.  Typically soybean fields are ready for seeding ‘as is’.  Cornfields will need to have the stalk residue removed by burning, baling, and / or very lightly working the ground.  Pre-existing CRP grasslands will need to be burned, followed by multiple glyphosate applications to eradicate the existing grasses in the seedbed (this often takes 2 – 5 herbicide treatments).  Once the existing seedbed has been eradicated and there’s good bare ground, it’s time for Step 2.

Winter broadcast seedings have become a popular method for pollinator seed mixes.  This can be done anytime the ground is frozen, with a thaw in the short-term forecast.  The seed typically needs to be mixed with 100-150#/acre of potash as a seed carrier.  Airflow fertilizer spreaders and standard fertilizer spreaders are the best options.  This broadcast method can also be done in the spring, but then it’s necessary to follow with a cultipacker or roller to incorporate the seed.  Traditional Truax and Great Plains native seed drills will also work for spring pollinator seedings.  Cracked corn, oats, or rice hull filler must be mixed with the grass seed to ensure accurate drill seedings (typically 10#/acre).  The drill should be set on its shallowest setting and its most reduced output setting.

The last step is the easiest… sit back and wait patiently.  Pollinator seedings typically take a couple years to become established.  Don’t expect the seeding to look good in Year 1.  Most native seedlings are establishing their root system and only grow a few inches in the first summer.  In the first growing season, it may be necessary to mow once or twice in early July – early August.  Please contact your NRCS staff or local biologist to see if mowing is necessary.  The general rule of thumb with establishment mowing is to mow HIGH and do not mow past the first week in August (otherwise you will hurt the good seedlings).  Mowing is only allowed in Year 1 for most government conservation programs.  After the first 2-3 years of establishment, it will be ready for some management.  Prescribed burning is the best management practice for pollinator habitat.  Contact your NRCS or local biologist for requirements regarding prescribed burning.

Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever (PFQF) are heavily involved in the conservation programs implementing pollinator habitat.  Pollinator habitat = great wildlife habitat!  PFQF works with local USDA offices and landowners through our PFQF Farm Bill Biologists, local chapters, and our chapters’ seeding equipment.  PFQF also has a habitat seed program focused on pollinator seed mixes (pfhabitatstore.com)

Here are some more resources for you:

crp-cp42-pollinator-habitat-guidance-2016

habitat-establishment

pollinator-habitat

PFQF Farm Bill Biologist Program

Jason Bleich – Serving East Central IL, (217) 855-0496, jbleich@pheasantsforever.org

Scott James – Serving West Central IL, (309) 660-3147, sjames@pheasantsforever.org

 

 

Prepping for spring seeding

Hi there! My name is Steve Turner, and I’m the cass-morgan-2x3-14president of the Cass-Morgan County Farm Bureau. I farm 2,900 acres in northern Cass and southern Mason County with my two adult sons, Brandon and Jacob. We grow corn, popcorn, soybeans, wheat, rye, and alfalfa hay. About half of those cropland acres are irrigated by center pivot irrigation systems, which are common in our area due to our sandy soils. We also have a small cow-calf operation.

Last fall my landlord and I made a decision to enroll in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) pollinator habitat practice through the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA). We had 27 acres of non-irrigated field corners that had previously been enrolled in CRP warm season grasses, and were set to expire. The pollinator habitat practice (also called CP-42), was a very attractive option for re-enrollment in the program due to program incentives. We now have a contract to put in pollinator habitat, and will see rental payments on those acres for the next ten years.

 
20160921_133259In order to prepare those 27 acres for a spring planting, we utilized our ag retailer, Sunrise FS, to chemically “burn down”, or kill, the established warm season grasses with an herbicide application. This was done in early fall, September of 2016, 101_0539in order to allow time for the application to trans-locate from the grass leaves and stems down to the roots before winter. The warm season grasses need to be controlled so they don’t compete with the pollinator seedlings in the spring. So far it looks like we have good control, but the Mason County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Sunrise FS will help me evaluate the field again in the spring to make sure our pollinator seedlings can get a good growing start.

20161019_143143All of that fall activity is part of our detailed seeding and management plan, created for us by NRCS. They used their technical expertise to craft a plan that will work specifically for our sandy soils. Another benefit of the CRP program is the 50% cost-share for seeding establishment.

I am still learning about pollinator habitat and plan on attending a workshop this month, put on by the Quail & Upland Game Alliance, USDA-FSA, and USDA-NRCS. Thanks for reading, and I plan to update you all as we move towards our spring planting.

Welcome to The Buzz!

Hi all! And welcome to The Buzz, my new blog about farming and pollinators. I’ll be posting updates and stories here about the latest news on bees and butterflies in Illinois, how Illinois farmers are working hard to create more and better pollinator habitat (we are currently the #2 state for CP-42 pollinator habitat acres), and we’ll follow along with our farmer members as they plant and care for pollinator habitat throughout the year.

Today I want to introduce you to our new Resource Page focusing on all things agriculture and pollinators. You can get there by going to http://www.ilfb.org/thebuzz. Here you’ll find interesting facts about pollinators in Illinois, ideas for where you can create spaces that are beneficial to pollinators on your farm, and a whole host of resources from a variety of sources. So if you’re interested in getting cost-share dollars, or you want to enhance your vegetable garden for pollinators, you can find that information on our site.

Native bees and honeybees aren’t the only pollinators we’re hearing about these days. The US government has also put an emphasis on bats and butterflies of concern. For example, the US Fish & Wildlife Service is considering listing the monarch butterfly as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. We’ll explore what that means for Illinois farmers, since Illinois is a “hot spot” in the monarch’s migratory path.

I hope you find the new Resource Page and this blog helpful. Stay tuned for updates!

Lyndsey

 

ramsey_lyndsey-2x3-15Lyndsey is the Associate Director of Natural and Environmental Resources for Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB). She has served in that role since April 2015, and currently works on issues such as water quality, conservation programs, pollinators, pesticides, and the Endangered Species Act, and she administers the IFB Nutrient Stewardship Grant Program. Email her through the “Contact Us” link.