Finding Common Ground in Conservation and Habitat Restoration

by Erin Beck
October 14, 2015

The Habitat Pays initiative is one of the first efforts in South Dakota to bring together the worlds of agriculture and conservation.

This unique collaboration between the Departments of Game, Fish and Parks and Agriculture highlights what farmers and conservationists have in common.

But in a world filled with buzzwords, it’s easy to get caught up in the trend of tossing phrases around without completely knowing what they mean.

To better understand some of the terms gaining traction in a world that’s growing more environmentally conscious, let’s look at a couple such phrases by placing them within their agricultural context.

What is conservation?

Meet Joel Erickson, a farmer from Langford, South Dakota, who’s been farming with his father and brother for over 30 years. They raise corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa alongside their cow-calf and feedlot operations.

Having received the Conservation Farm Award from Marshall County in 2009, Erickson understands the importance of conservation in agriculture. His family started using minimum tillage practices in the ‘70s and converted to no-till and strip-till more than 20 years ago.

“We’re trying to learn new things and stay on the cutting edge of production practices,” Erickson said.

Soil and water rank as top priorities in conservation methods. Common practices include no-till, cover crops, green manure crops, stubble mulching and contour farming. Minimizing soil disturbance and reducing runoff and erosion while maintaining soil cover become critical in these production techniques.

Crop rotation is another popular conservation strategy that promotes plant health and improves conditions for plant establishment and growth. Cycling different crops through a field every year controls pest and disease cycles more easily while enhancing soil fertility.

There’s more than one way to approach conservation, and Erickson understands that principle.

“There is no one size fits all, so individuals need to develop a plan that works for them,” Erickson said. “We’re just trying to show how farmers can be profitable and sustainable in their operation.”

What is habitat restoration?

While habitat restoration has goals that overlap with those of conservation, these two concepts aren’t synonymous.

Habitat restoration falls under the conservation umbrella but specifically targets the reintroduction of native plants and wildlife to enhance biodiversity, which hinges on a variety of plant and animal species.

Integrating biodiversity into a habitat protects water resources, improves soil organic matter and creates an environment that is less susceptible to disease and pests that are common problems found within monoculture cropping systems.

Wetland restoration and forestry/wildlife habitat preservation all fall within the scope of reestablishing the native environment. Because habitat restoration complements grasslands and can be incorporated into holistic management, this type of conservation is often seen in livestock grazing operations.

Both are important to agriculture

Conservation can mean fewer inputs while maintaining production. Increased availability of nutrients as well as improved soil structure contribute to boosting yields, and with less cultivation required, fuel consumption drops.

Habitat restoration impacts the environment by enhancing soil health and fertility and improving water quality. Restoration also provides greater wildlife and plant diversity, which decreases the prevalence of weeds and pests without chemical intervention.

Crop rotation, no-till, cover crops and other similar farming practices are part of the conservation and habitat restoration that will contribute to a more sustainable agricultural system.

“We all try to leave the ground in better shape than when we got it,” Erickson said. “My goal is to leave the farm to my daughter or son, or both, in better condition than when I started.”

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