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Grow bird-friendly hay in Ont.

Grow bird-friendly hay in Ont.

Delaying hay cutting protects the habitat of at-risk ground nesting birds

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

Tomorrow, May 8, is World Migratory Bird Day, and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is celebrating by encouraging farmers to “Delay the Hay.”

The CVCs Bird-Friendly Certified Hay program has farmers delay cutting hay until after July 15 to protect grassland birds, such as the grasshopper sparrow, henslow’s sparrow, bobolink and eastern meadowlark. These species are all ground-nesting birds known to occupy grasslands that are species at risk in Ontario.

The program is unique because “we’re not paying anyone to do this directly,” Mark Eastman, senior coordinator of agricultural outreach for CVC, told “We’re trying to set up the market and just have the market run itself.”

At a time when government funding is spread thin as we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, this approach is significant.

“We’re not always dipping into public dollars to finance the on-farm environmental projects, but we just try to create a system that in some way runs itself, and the farmers are rewarded for their participation through a marketplace that already exists,” Eastman explained.

Though the organization is still investigating the specific market for Bird-Friendly Certified Hay, many acres are already successfully enrolled in the program.

“Once farmlands become available in the program for rent, it’s not too long before our hay growers are reaching out to those landowners to negotiate lease-agreements for the property to grow bird-friendly hay,” he added. “There is a strong demand for access to land to grow hay, regardless of whether it’s bird-friendly certified or not.”

Non-farming rural landowners “they like participating in this program,” Eastman said. The program helps to streamline the process of establishing expectations around management of the land between the landowner and the grower.

Landowners also “get access to farm business registration numbers from the farmers and that helps reduce their property taxes, which is always welcomed by them,” he added.

For growers that sell direct-to-consumer, the program may have some additional marketing benefits.

“Most of our growers in the program are using the hay themselves on their own properties to feed to their own livestock,” Eastman explained. “They’re chatting it up with their customers … they’re communicating the goals of the program and what they’re doing to help species at risk in the province.”

Anecdotally, “creating that story with the consumer helps them with their brand identification. Consumers want a story and they want to know that they are purchasing from farms that are doing that little bit extra” for the environment, he said.

Though the program doesn’t cover forage analysis of the hay, an understanding exists that delaying cutting changes the nutritional quality of the cut.

Later cutting “changes the stem to leaf ratio (which) generally results in higher fibre, lower protein and nutrient levels. So, if those are the measures you look at for quality of hay, absolutely we’re seeing a decrease in quality,” Eastman said. However, “a quality hay is very much dependent on the specific animal you are intending to feed it to.”

Bird-Friendly Certified Hay “is going to be a low-protein hay, it’s going to have higher fibre, but that actually might be what you need for your farm,” he explained.

“It’s becoming very common on dairy farmers to be including wheat straw to mix into their rations,” he added. “They’re not doing that because it has high protein and mineral content, they’re doing it because they know they need to introduce fibre into that ration.”

Farmers have successfully fed Bird-friendly Certified Hay to beef cattle, horses, and dairy goats.

Bird-Friendly Certified Hay is “an agricultural program that is meant to improve habitat for grassland birds, but there are other spinoff benefits that don’t take the center stage in our communications but are very real,” Eastman said. It “allows farms that rely upon a forage-base locally to run their operations to remain more competitive.”

Some sub-prime farmland in the region gets broken up for row crop production or comes out of production. Bird-Friendly Certified Hay helps to keep forages on the landscape, which can in-turn prevent erosion and preserve water quality, he explained.

“We can still get those environmental benefits from a working landscape,” he added.

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