May 8th was World Migratory Bird Day and to celebrate, Ontario’s Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) launched a “Delay the Hay” campaign to encourage farmers to sign up for its Bird-Friendly Certified Hay program.
The program wants farmers to consider delaying hay cutting until July 15th. Usually, farmers make a first cut in late May or June, a precarious time for ground-nesting birds and their young, such as the Bobolink and Eastern Meadowlark. According to the CVC, there are only a few natural grasslands in the Credit River Watershed so the birds are forced to find nesting grounds in nearby farm fields, including hay and pasture fields. If the hay cutting is delayed until July then the farmers can protect these at-risk birds.
“Farmers have the opportunity to grow a niche product that demonstrates their commitment to the environment,” Mark Eastman, senior coordinator, Agricultural Outreach at CVC said. “There are currently 300 acres enrolled in the program and our goal is to reach 400 acres of bird-friendly hay in the Credit River Watershed by 2022.”
As of this writing in 2020 the initiative had 22 more acres enrolled compared to 2019.
For Barry and Tina Wright, who live on their farm in Erin and signed up for the program in 2014, the prospect of helping preserve nesting habitat for the birds was a win-win. “The flexibility of enrolling only a portion of my farmland allows me to balance my desire to grow higher-protein early-cut hay with my desire to leave a little space for the birds,” said Barry Wright in a statement.
The couple also like being able to market their hay as “bird-friendly” and enjoy talking about the program to clients. And adds Barry, their end customer ‒ the horses ‒ seem to relish the late-cut stuff.
Horse-Canada.com spoke with the CVC’s Mark Eastman about the Delay the Hay campaign and the ongoing Bird-Friendly Certified Hay program.
HC: What do you say to a hay producer who needs to get a second cut of hay off their field in order to earn a living?
ME: Most of the hay growers in the Bird-Friendly Certified Hay program are growing hay for use on their own farms. They work with us to decide which of their hay fields would be best to enroll in the program and delay harvest on those areas, while continuing to take earlier cuttings on the other fields. This program does not aim to delay cutting on all hay acres and it recognizes the need for earlier cut, higher-protein hay.
Many of our participating farmers communicate to their customers their involvement in the Bird-Friendly Certified Hay Program as a way of demonstrating their environmental commitment. It is our hope that they are financially rewarded through the marketplace for providing spaces for at-risk grassland birds on their farms.
Most of the lands enrolled in the program are rental lands and the farmers get access to the field at a very low or zero-dollar rental fee. The hay growers are quite all right with a single cut of hay when they don’t have to pay high costs to rent the land or outright purchase it.
HC: Doesn’t hay go to seed by mid-July?
ME: Most forage crop species will be flowering in mid-July and on the declining side of peak nutritional quality. This means the hay will have less protein and nutrients and higher fibre than if it was harvested earlier. However, it’s important to remember that different livestock types, ages and physical condition require different types of hay. What is good for forage for one animal might not be ideal for another. Bird-Friendly Certified Hay has been fed to beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats in varying manners. It is always best to speak to your veterinarian about your animal’s specific dietary requirements when considering late-cut hay in the overall ration.
HC: What has been the positive reaction you’ve received from farmers who had signed on? What push-back have you gotten?
ME: The biggest benefit I have heard from farmers is the simple access to low or no-cost hay acreage to grow their farm business. Also, farmers appreciate the Conservation Authority taking time to recognize the environmental benefits that can come from their worked farmlands as well as the woodlands and wetlands on their farms.
I sometimes get questions about the requirement to delay harvest and the impact it has on quality. Once I let the farmer know that the program is not meant to convert every acre of farmland to late-cut hay and that the program is flexible in the amount of lands enrolled and the number of years its enrolled for, their concerns subside.
HC: Why do you think this is important? What should horse owners/land owners know about the birds that might make them take notice of the program?
ME: I know that often it can be challenging running your farm business or rural property. It can be difficult to source hay, secure rental lands or find a tenant farmer. This program helps solve these problems, while helping at-risk grassland birds raise their young. This program benefits both people and the birds!