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Buffer zones: common sense conservation

Strips of non-crop, native vegetation are beckoning to farmers, and part of the lure involves removing acreage from production. This apparent contradiction, once an absurd notion, is rapidly growing in acceptance.

The many visitors attending the recent field day at the Duncan Williams Farm in Coahoma County, Miss., saw the success and potential of conservation buffer zones.

The field day presentation, led by Wes Burger, avian ecologist and wildlife and fisheries professor, Mississippi State University, and Ross Conover, Ph.D. candidate, Iowa State University, emphasized the benefits of buffer zones to both agriculture and ecology. Burger described buffer zones as “win-win propositions” for both farmers and conservationists.

Burger and Conover highlighted different types of buffers by taking attendees to several exemplary locations on the Williams Farm. These included riparian buffers, field strips, and field borders. Their presentation never strayed from it’s theme — “Buffers: common sense conservation.”

The message spoke loudest through its simplicity — buffers offer tangible results for both wildlife habitat and agriculture.

Concerning habitat, buffers can be a haven for an incredible array of flora and fauna. “Buffers provide different things for different species at different times,” said Burger. A buffer’s growth (over a 20-year period) might change from grass to shrubs to trees. Burger detailed how each timeframe could be laden with diverse and unique wildlife.

Without question, the creature best associated with buffer zones is the bobwhite quail. Bobwhite numbers are up, attributable to CP 33, Habitat Buffers for Upland Birds. A federal conservation measure passed in 2004, CP 33 has become the impetus for bobwhite restoration. Buffers have provided desperately needed sustenance and cover, vital to the bobwhite’s survival.

However, buffers are favorable to a wide array of other animals. Proliferation of particular animal species depends on the landowner’s intent when first establishing a buffer. A buffer’s composition (vegetation, location and width) has a correlation with the type of fauna present. In addition to bobwhite quail — deer, rabbits, and a multitude of birds may seek protection, food, thermal cover, corridors, and nesting sites.

In regard to buffers and agriculture, cynics might frown and hurl charges of careless compassion and misbegotten altruism at the expense of yield and output. This is simply not the case.

Farm production demands bottom-line realism, and conservation buffer zones are designed to be congruent with that bottom line.

Again, CP 33 is a fine example. Landowners signing with the program are reimbursed for 90 percent of establishment costs. In addition, there is a yearly rental payment to counter lost production, and a $100 per acre signing incentive.

Buffers occupy the edge of crop fields — a location where farm production is already minimal. Therefore, an area with minimal production can be boosted by financial incentives that come with the implementation of conservation practices.

“Conservation buffers serve as an interface between row crops and the outside,” Conover said. “They have minimal impact on row crop production.”

Agricultural benefits go beyond percents and figures. Buffers can foster rich, beneficial predator insect populations. These predators will then assist in controlling the insect pest population. In addition, crop pollinators may reap buffer benefits, thriving due to new habitat.

Water and wind erosion can be substantially reduced by buffer introduction. Water quality can be improved as pollutants are trapped before runoff within buffer vegetation. If planted with deep-rooted, native grasses, drought-tolerant buffers will endure the most severe of water shortages.

Buffer zones will thrive if designed with foresight and purpose. When vegetation is matched with preferred varieties, desired wildlife, climate, and landscape — buffers flourish.

Whether “common sense conservation” gathers more steam remains to be seen, but the participants at the Williams Farm field day believe that buffer zones are viable and beneficial, representing a rare symmetry between agriculture and ecology.


TAGS: Management
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