It's bobolink central at Dan Specht's farm
By Jean Caspers-Simmet
Date Modified: 08/02/2012 2:00 PM
MCGREGOR, Iowa — It's early morning in late May.
Dan Specht carefully drives his pickup through the pasture as he does his cattle chores.
He suddenly grins.
"I think we've found bobolink central," he says.
Three male bobolinks perch on the fence. Their bright yellow caps and white patches on their backs are set off by black breasts and faces.
The bobolinks sing a series of joyful bubbing phrases as they perform aerial displays. They are nearly always in motion as they woo their mates. Nearby a dickcissel perches on a fence post, throws back its head and sings a buzzy "dick, dick cissel." Close examination of the pasture grasses reveals a savannah sparrow, and the melodic song of a meadowlark can be heard in the distance.
Sedge wren, horned lark, grasshopper sparrow and eastern king bird.
"They're all here," Specht said.
These grassland birds are among the fastest and most consistently declining birds in North America due to the rapid disappearance of native prairies and grasslands, according to Iowa Audubon. Less than 0.1 percent of prairie habitat remains in Iowa of what existed in the early 1800s. Specht's rotationally grazed cattle operation and his brother, Phil's, nearby grass-based dairy provide habitat that attracts boblinks and other grassland birds.
Bobolinks winter in Argentina and to Specht's McGregor pastures in May. It is one of the longest migration journeys of any Iowa songbird. Males arrive in early May and females in mid-May.
Bobolinks only nest in large tracts of grass. Road ditches are not wide enough parcels. They nest on the ground and often return to areas where they've nested before.
Specht observes that his bobolink population increases when neighboring farms cut hay, and the birds leave those fields.
Bobolinks nest in late May and early June. It takes just 12 to 14 days for eggs to hatch. The young can fly at eight days.
They favor grassland ridge tops as they begin to fly. The birds often leave by mid-July to seek seed sources and are on their way back to South America by September.
Specht said he learned the most about how to manage pastures for bobolinks' nesting habitat from Ohio organic dairy farmer and naturalist David Kline. The Amish dairy farmer has written that he lightly grazes his cattle in late April and then lets the pasture go for hay. This allows the grassland birds time for nest building, egg laying and raising their young. Kline's goal is to see flying young bobolinks while mowing.
Specht follows a similar plan letting his cattle lightly graze hay fields in early to mid-May to delay maturity by a month. Hay-making comes after the bobolinks are done nesting.
A few years ago, Jon Stravers, who is with the National Audubon Society's Upper Mississippi River Campaign, noticed that Specht's brother Phil had "bobolinks all over" when he monitored birds in Phil's woods. He asked the Specht brothers about their rotational grazing systems.The brothershave a strong commitment to conservation and were delighted to learn that their systems were good for birds.
"It's a richer place for us if we can walk out on a grassland and hear bobolinks whooping it up," Stravers said at a field day at Specht's farm several summers ago.
Specht, a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa and a Land Stewardship Project board member, has hosted field days and pasture walks on rotational grazing and bird habitat.
Specht believes that he can manage his pastures in a way that maximizes profit and still offers good habitat for birds and other wildlife. He has designed a system where his brome, orchard, fescue, bluegrass, quackgrass and clover pastures and hay give ground nesting birds a safe place to build nests and raise their young.
He farms 500 acres of rolling to steep land in Clayton County. Just five acres are in row crops.
"You get a premium for grass-fed beef," says Specht, who has been farming organically since 1983. He will calve 75 Red Angus-Devon cross cows this fall, raising the calves "from conception to consumption." He also custom grazes bred dairy heifers for his brother.
Specht developed his grazing system after visiting New Zealand graziers. He keeps cattle in each paddock for three days and then gives each paddock a month's rest between grazings. He makes sure the cattle have enough to eat for those three days without overgrazing.
"The main thing is to have more good grasslands to attract the birds, and then manage the grasses as best you can," Specht said.
He currently sells a lot of his cattle to Eric Klein's Hidden Stream Farm at Elgin, Minn. Klein markets beef in the Twin Cities. This summer, Specht started selling beef through Laura Krouse and Susan Jutz's community supported agriculture operations in Mount Vernon and Solon.
"It's going amazingly well," he said.