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Diverse Partnership Turns Good Ideas into Good Habitat — and Good Pasture

A restored wetland in southwestern Hamilton County is the site of an innovative partnership that combines new technology with some old-fashioned common sense. Rainwater Basin Joint Venture (RWBJV) partners, including conservation agencies and agriculture technology and equipment companies, are working with the Marsh family to maximize the value of their Rainwater Basin wetland – in their farm operation and as migratory bird habitat.

Not long ago, the Marsh family was evaluating options to deal with 50-plus acres of flood-prone cropland. They considered the Wetlands Reserve Program (which has since been replaced by the Agriculture Conservation Easement program – Wetlands Reserve Easement option, or WRE), administered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. But like many producers in south-central Nebraska, the Marshes were dissuaded by a significant obstacle: the program would limit their ability to cross a pivot irrigation system over the enrolled lands, thereby reducing the system’s efficiency. However, in 2011, a Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program (WREP) was established under which landowners maintained a reserved right to pass their irrigation system over enrolled acres.

The program’s flexibility encouraged the Marshes to sign up for WREP. Their wetland was restored through sediment removal and seeding of native plants, and a permanent easement was placed on the acres involved. The family reinvested the easement payment into the purchase of a corner system for their center pivot, which allowed them to irrigate their field corners and thus gain 15 acres of high-quality irrigated cropland to offset 53 acres of previously marginal ground.

The Marshes and the Joint Venture partners wanted to ensure the wetland’s long-term value, both to the farm operation and to migratory birds. For that, two things were necessary: an ability to precisely control irrigation inputs, and a method for controlling undesirable invasive species such as reed canary grass. Wetland plant communities can be managed through regular disturbances – such as prescribed fire, haying, or chemical and mechanical treatments. But the method promoted by the RWBJV’s Working Lands Initiative – and the one chosen by the Marshes – is grazing, which not only improves wildlife habitat, but produces income.

To facilitate grazing, RWBJV partners provided 85% cost-share assistance to construct wildlife-friendly perimeter fence, as well as a solar livestock well and tanks. Sixteen pivot-crossing ramps will be installed on the fence so that the pivot can cross over and make a complete circuit. The RWBJV is also helping the Marshes develop a grazing plan that will maximize habitat and forage production.

Precise control of irrigation inputs – through retrofitting and enhancement of the existing pivot irrigation system – will protect the wetland by ensuring that it doesn’t become too wet and will maximize crop production by applying irrigation inputs to the parts of the field that are in water deficit. A variety of Variable Rate Irrigation technology upgrades were needed. These included modifications to the valves and sprinklers, plus GPS and specialized software at the pivot panel. Together, the upgrades allow producers to control when nozzles are turned on and off, according to their location in the field. Soil moisture probes, along with precision mapping, allow the producer to understand in real time how much moisture is needed, and where.

Funding for the project comes from the Nebraska Environmental Trust, a State Wildlife Grant from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program, and the landowner. Valmont Industries is providing funding for modifications to the pivot system; CropMetrics is providing funding to support the precision mapping and development of irrigation prescriptions. AgSense, LLC is contributing financially to hardware and firmware upgrades.

RWBJV coordinator Andy Bishop says, “We’re pleased to join irrigation companies in this project. Like our conservation partners, they recognize that when wetlands become assets in an agriculture operation, we all benefit.”

An added outcome of the project is that it will serve as one of several test sites in a study to quantify how net farm income is affected by a transition of flood-prone cropland to forage production, and by adoption of VRI technology. The two-year study will be conducted by the Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and will be funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project.

“Variable Rate Irrigation is an option that offers answers to many of the challenges we face in integrating conservation with agriculture,” says Bishop. “We hope the results of this project will encourage more producers to explore this option, and will provide them with information to make an informed decision.”