For many farmers and ranchers, game birds and other wildlife offer an additional source of revenue from hunters willing to pay for access to private land. But crop and livestock production practices do not always match up with best practices for encouraging wildlife populations, especially as land in the Conservation Reserve Program returns to agricultural production. Research from North Dakota State University shows, however, that ranchers can manage that land for grazing while also providing good nesting habitat for game birds including ringneck pheasants and ducks. Nesting success is one of the biggest factors in determining game-bird populations.

   Benjamin Geaumont, PhD, from NDSU’s Hettinger Research and Extension Center presented results of his research during the 2011 Range Beef Cow Symposium in Mitchell, Neb. Geaumont pointed out that hen pheasants lay a clutch of about a dozen eggs in the spring, and spend most of the next 23 days sitting on the nest. Concealment is their only real defense against predators during that period, so adequate plant cover — density and height — is critical.

   The NDSU researchers used two 640-acre blocks of land formerly enrolled in CRP to evaluate the effects of agricultural production systems on game-bird nesting. The treatments included:

* Leaving land idle

* Hay production with one cutting in late June or early July

* No-till corn production with the corn left standing and grazed from Jan. 1 to April 15

* No-till barley, harvested and baled in mid-July

* Season-long grazing with a moderate stocking rate from June 1 to Jan. 1, targeting about 50 percent forage utilization.

   From 2007 through 2010, the researchers monitored 142 pheasant nests and 229 waterfowl nests in the research blocks. Not surprisingly, they found no nests in the no-till corn or no-till barley fields and just a few in the hay fields. The idle land provided the highest numbers of nests for pheasants and ducks and the greatest chance of nesting success for pheasants. Nesting success for ducks was slightly higher on the grazed blocks. In both cases, the number of nests on the land managed for full-season grazing was about half that on idle land but far higher than in the crop treatments. Geaumont concluded that pheasant and waterfowl production is compatible with a proper grazing program, although at reduced rates, provided residual vegetation is maintained as structure following the grazing period. He recommended that producers who want to encourage game-bird production maintain a patchwork of areas within pastures that contain enough vegetation for nesting cover.