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The morning’s rising sun blinded my eyes as I dodged cornstalks on that South Dakota farmland. Although those beaming rays failed to warm the frozen fingers that gripped the cold metal of my shotgun’s receiver, they cooked the cornfield just enough to cause pheasants to suddenly “pop” into sight like popcorn across the prairie. As hunters marched in a lockstep line across the expansive cornfield, an occasional cackle would be heard, followed by a popping sound and a sky full of feathers. The view of this movie was a blockbuster, and the only thing missing was some melted butter and a little salt. The numbers of birds on this private land were indescribable—these folks farmed for pheasants.
Regarding the question of how it could be possible to support such a phenomenal bird population, the answer is a complicated one—an intricate melody of hard work, mental ingenuity, good ground, financial resources, agency support, and some help from Lady Luck and Mother Nature. This hardworking Johannsen family has been balancing their for-profit farming and ranching operation with conservation-minded habitat practices for many species of wildlife. And they’ve been doing it for over five generations on their 5,000 acres in the Prairie Pothole Region of South Dakota. From even a quick conversation about their management practices, a good listener can detect the pure passion for these lands, and the wildlife that lives on them, that this family exudes. “The cool thing about grass is that the cows like it too. The foundation of what we do for pheasants starts with our ranching operation,” said Erick Johannsen. “If we can do a better job at managing the grassland production for our cattle, the natural benefit is for pheasants.”
“Our wild bird numbers are a result of an overall agricultural production and cattle grazing plan focused on providing unsurpassed wildlife habitat,” Eric continued. “In our minds, when we are farming, we are always thinking about pheasants, thick winter cover, and food plots. We ask ourselves, ‘Do the pheasants have the necessary nesting habitat?’ If not, we try to do something about it.” This unique mindset—bridging the gap between industry and conservation—is an ethic that the Johannsens work on every year. And they communicate their successes, and failures, to the public and through conservation groups, such as Pheasants Forever, so that other private landowners can learn their lessons and try to similarly benefit wildlife on their own lands.
“Our farm features a carefully managed combination of native grasslands, CRP grasslands, cornfields, wheatfields, cattail sloughs, wooded shelter belts, and diversified food plots—landscapes that provide both dense nesting habitat and valuable feed sources for countless wild birds,” Eric explained. “All of the pieces of our ‘conservation puzzle’ together are the best upland bird habitat we can provide.” These management practices are different for the operations of each landowner, but if all private landowners across pheasant country kept this conservation-minded ethic, it could mean a landscape-scale difference for pheasant habitat and populations. For the Johannsens, no-till farming and rotational grazing are a few, but not all, of the management practices they have implemented into their business that also help wildlife.
“Our unique no-till farming operation leaves behind valuable habitat to attract and support a vast array of wildlife,” said Eric. “In addition, we implement rotational grazing with fresh water and cross fences, which is more of an art than a science, and it depends on the particular farming operation to determine what works for acreage and duration of the rotation. The bottom line is that higher-quality grasslands increase pollinator production, insect populations, and pheasant habitat, all while providing support for our ranching operation.” These management practices on private lands make a difference for public-land hunters, too. “When we speak of world-class wildlife populations, which we are blessed with here in America, private lands are incredibly important,” added Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever Public Relations Manager Jared Wiklund. “Each year, massive amounts of wildlife that are born and raised on private lands help to create opportunities for public-land hunters.”
“A good example in pheasant country would be a private landowner who has great acreage, through grass, for nesting cover on his property,” Wiklund continued. “In a good year, the broods raised on this parcel would expand their home range (up to 2 square miles in some instances) and be available on an adjacent public tract. Public lands alone do not and would not have the capacity to sustain huntable wildlife populations each and every year. When we add private property to the mix, the potential for wildlife productivity increases significantly.” The essential message is that every bit helps in terms of the private-land acreage available for management and the efforts of the individual landowners. “People think you need thousands of acres to make a difference for pheasants, which is not true. These birds thrive in a mosaic of diverse habitats,” Wiklund added. “You can make a difference on a small parcel of private land too.”
“To help with these management efforts, Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever do a large amount of habitat work on private lands through chapters and through our Farm Bill Biologist Partnership Program, providing free assistance to landowners to meet their habitat and land use goals,” said Wiklund. “On the flip side, our organizations work closely with these same individuals to enroll land in public access to provide more opportunities for hunters.” Every effort a private landowner can make to implement conservation into their land management practices, no matter the number of acres, makes a difference for pheasants and wildlife habitat.
“Grass is king for wild birds, and nothing beats native prairie for the habitat pheasants need,” stressed Eric Johannsen. The more grass we can produce across pheasant country, the closer we will get to the mosaic of habitat necessary to support upland birds, big game, pollinators, reduced soil erosion, and clean water. It all works together, and we can all do our part.
Originally published in Volume 7, Number 3 (April-May 2019) of Covey Rise.