July 29 – August 4, 2016Vol. 18, No. 8

Local Dairy Farm Conserves Grassland Bird Habitat

by Laura Suomi-Lecker

In a first-time partnership effort, Gold Top Dairy Farm of Knox Ridge collaborated with the Somerset and Waldo County Soil and Water Conservation Districts this summer to conserve more than 40 acres of active hayland as grassland bird habitat. Gold Top farm is run by brothers Mike and Greg Ingraham and their wives Jackie and Shirley, Greg's son, Isaac and employee, Alex Green. The farm, started in 1876 and now on its fourth generation, is an icon in the town of Knox, and consists of 1400 acres. The Ingrahams milk 400 cows.

In return for an incentive payment to help offset loss in forage quality, Mike, Greg and family consented to delay mowing on a particularly productive parcel of active bobolink habitat at the end of June. This was a tremendous conservation effort, and resulted in the fledging of at least 50 bobolink youngsters last week. Bobolink family groups were up and about by Friday afternoon, July 8, gliding over the grassland, hunting for insects and making their joyous calls. In addition to hosting bobolinks, the fields were also nesting grounds for Savannah sparrows and possibly a meadowlark family.

Incentive funds were provided by the Davis Conservation Foundation for the Somerset County District's Agricultural Allies program, an outreach and education project intended to encourage safe nesting habitat for grassland birds.

Bobolinks are a historic sight and sound each spring in the fields and meadows of Maine. In addition to being a delight to see and hear, bobolinks and other grassland birds are true agricultural allies to central Maine farmers as these birds consume large quantities of both insect pests and weed seeds each growing season.

Unfortunately, the population of these beneficial birds has been in a steady and precipitous decline since the 1960s, according to the State of the Birds 2014 report. The bobolink appears on their Watchlist of bird species most in need of conservation action. Here in Maine, the reason there is habitat for these birds at all is because of our agricultural landscape.

However, most hayfields are cut at least once during the nesting time, from the end of May to mid-July, which results in total nestling mortality, a pattern that plays out across the northeast. Ingraham's delay in mowing, just over a week in duration, was the key to survival for this large group of bobolink nestlings. The willingness of the Ingrahams to work with the Districts on this issue, even extending the delay past the agreed timeframe, allowing additional time for late nesters) was a tangible and significant benefit for the grassland birds of central Maine.

It is not only farmers who can help grassland birds, however. Everyone can have a hand in helping these birds. If we as the general public could leave grass areas unmowed until August 1, including letting some lawn area "go natural," we could help create non-competitive grasslands for birds, pollinators and other wildlife.

Reducing manicured lawn in favor of meadow creation not only benefits wildlife, but it saves time, fuel, and money for landowners, making it a true win-win situation. We encourage people to contact the Somerset County SWCD at 474-8324, ext. 3 or www.somersetswcd.org to find out other ways that they can get involved with this critical conservation effort.

This week's guest columnist is Technical Director for Somerset County Soil and Water Conservation District.