Conservation Reserve Program turns poor cropland into wildlife habitat

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008
— It wouldn’t make much of a cornfield.

But this summer, the seven-acre patch worked to its full potential and saved corn in nearby fields from certain drowning.

Lima Township resident Matt Bollerud has a 40-acre piece of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. The program, which is managed by the federal Farm Service Agency and put into effect by county conservationists, pays landowners to take poor farmland out of production and protect environmentally sensitive areas.

“It’s primarily meant to set aside land that’s less productive or has other environmental benefits,” said Rock County conservationist Roger Allan. “There’s very little prime farmland that goes into this program.”

Rock County has its share of prime farm acres.

But these acres aren’t among them, Bollerud said.

His dad cleared the brushy, marshy spot by hand 50 years ago. But year after year, one spot would collect water.

The corn would look great for a while in that spot in a dry year. But when it rained, you couldn’t pump water out of it, Bollerud said. It would just keep filling.

His dad used a sub-soiler—a large metal tooth weighted by a 300-gallon tank of water—to dig into the field and try to break up whatever was holding the water at the surface.

No go.

So Bollerud and his son used a fence post driver to sink a pipe into the ground and investigate.

What did they find?

One foot of topsoil, 7 feet of red clay and 2 feet of blue clay.

After gawking at the soil sample, Bollerud and his son peered into the hole. In 10 minutes, the 10-foot hole was full of water.

“(The field) was dry,” Bollerud said. “That filled up on a dry day.”

So Bollerud now lets the parcel do what nature intended. He signed up for the Conservation Reserve Program and turned the wettest spots into three “duck scrapes.” Those are shallow dents in the land that collect water in wet years and grow cattails in dry years.

Bollerud’s scrapes, technically called “shallow water areas for wildlife” in Conservation Reserve Program terms, are three indentations no more than 3.5 feet deep.

Most years, they are three indentations separated by 400 feet.

This year, it’s one big, 7-acre pond that formed with the early summer flooding.

Bollerud, a duck hunter, said the scrapes usually are bone dry by fall. But they won’t be this year.

That’s good news for the ducks and for the farmer who rents 100 nearby acres from Bollerud. Without the scrapes, those 7 acres of water would have pooled on his cornfield, just like water did on many fields in Rock County after this year’s flood.

“He would have had a pretty big crop loss,” Bollerud said.


Lima Township landowner Matt Bollerud has turned a poor cornfield into an excellent shallow, marshy spot for wildlife.

Why does it work so well?

Bollerud’s property is in a natural depression in grassland blooming with wildflowers. And only a foot below the soil is at least 9 feet of clay, said Rock County conservationist Roger Allan.

Clay prevents water movement, Allan said. That’s why engineers line landfills with clay.

Farmers commonly call clay “tight” soil, Allan said, because the pieces hold so tightly together that they keep water from soaking through.

Imagine packing a jar with rocks. Lots of water still could get in. If you packed it with gravel, less water could fill the smaller spaces. Sand is even finer, and would pack tighter.

Clay has the tiniest particles of all, Allan said.

“They bind together more,” Allan said. “The tiny particles hold moisture between them. It’s hard for water to get through.”

In some cases, farmers like some clay 2 or 3 feet below the soil surface to can retain water for crops.

But if the clay is too close to the surface, it’s hard to cultivate, and it leaves water standing in a field.

Ducks like the marshy pools formed by standing water.

Corn doesn’t.

Last updated: 9:58 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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