WARRENTON, VA — Now through November 15, the Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative (VGBI) is accepting applications from producers in 16 counties across the northern Virginia Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Shenandoah Valley who are interested in financial incentives for protecting nesting grassland birds during the 2024 haying season.
Entering its third year and funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Sarah K. de Coizart Perpetual Charitable Trust, VGBI provides up to $35 per acre in exchange for: 1) delaying the first cut of hay until July 1 or later; and/or 2) rotating livestock out of select fields between April 15 and July 1 or later. Because most grassland bird species require wide expanses of grasses for nesting, the program requires a minimum 20-acre commitment, ideally a large, contiguous patch of grassland distant from thick forest edges and human development. To learn more about the program and to apply, visit vagrasslandbirds.org/incentives.
Native grasslands have suffered more intense impact by humans than any other North American terrestrial ecosystem. In response, remaining grassland birds have adopted hayfields and pasturelands as a surrogate habitat. Grassland bird conservation, therefore, falls largely on private landowners and farmers. By working with producers to implement a suite of best management practices, VGBI strives to stem the tide of grassland bird decline, improve the resiliency of working landscapes, and positively impact the livelihoods that depend upon those lands. In addition to protecting nesting habitat, these practices can also be used strategically to stockpile forage for late summer grazing, to rest and reseed fields, and to reduce feed expenses.
“Delaying the first hay cutting until at least early July is a game-changer for our grassland birds because it allows the bulk of them to fledge at least one successful clutch of young. That quickly changes a hayfield from being a site of population loss to one of population gain,” said October Greenfield, VGBI co-coordinator and wildlife habitat coordinator at The Piedmont Environmental Council. Meanwhile, rotating livestock out of select fields in the early spring and allowing those fields to rest until early summer — a practice called summer pasture stockpiling — is proving to be beneficial for not only nesting birds, but also cattle, soil health, and producer profitability.
Harlequin Farm in Loudoun County was the program’s first participating horse farm. Owner Paula Bliss trains and coaches people and horses for competitive carriage driving at the farm. “I’ve seen a really positive impact being able to rotate the horses off some of my fields, [and] let them reseed naturally. I’ve seen an increase in the bird populations and beneficial insects, so it has all been a benefit for me. My business can still function; I can still do everything that I do here and still be part of the program.”
“With the majority of remaining grasslands in Virginia currently held in private hands and under agricultural use,” Greenfield said, “VGBI gives farmers the opportunity to become partners in conservation by implementing grassland bird-friendly agricultural practices. We work with farmers to create conservation plans that protect grassland birds while simultaneously supporting their production goals.”
In its first two years, 27 producers formally enrolled 1,500 acres of land in the program. In addition, 13 landowners implemented delayed haying or summer pasture stockpiling on another 1,800 acres voluntarily, without the program’s financial incentives. In 2024, VGBI will be able to add 1,500 new acres thanks to increased funding this year. Producers interested in adopting one or both of these practices, with or without the financial incentive, can apply at vagrasslandbirds.org/incentives until November 15.
Tim Mize, of the Virginia Cooperative Extension and a member of VGBI’s steering committee, is excited to see this program gaining traction. “Although at times they seem at odds, livestock agriculture and wildlife conservation can benefit one another. It just seems obvious to me that this program is a win/win scenario for both,” he said.
Melinda Alexander at Zinnia Ridge Farm in Culpeper County said she had a “fantastic experience” participating in the delayed hay program last year. “We are grateful to have learned so much and to have been around such knowledgeable and inspiring naturalists while participating in this program.”
The Virginia Grassland Bird Initiative is a partnership of The Piedmont Environmental Council, Smithsonian’s Virginia Working Landscapes, American Farmland Trust, and Quail Forever.
Featured photo by Hugh Kenny.
Posted on: October 10, 2023