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Mowing with Biodiversity in Mind

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A map aims to help balance the interests of agriculture and wildlife at the Farm Hub

When is the best time of year to mow on the farm to protect wildlife? That is one of the most common questions received by the ecology team at the Farm Hub. 

To be sure, mowing is an essential part of running a farm, whether it be for the maintenance of grounds, crops, or for ecological land management. The Applied Farmscape Ecology Program’s land stewardship efforts have been crafted to create and maintain habitat for wildlife such as turtles, insects, and grassland breeding birds, all of whose populations have been decreasing largely due to habitat loss.  This year the Applied Farmscape Ecology staff developed a mowing map as a tool to help limit harm to wildlife at the farm. 

“The mowing map has been distributed to our farmers and any staff who use mowers whether for farm production, habitat management, or maintaining the grounds to seek a balance between agriculture and the welfare of turtles, grassland birds, and insects,” says Anne Bloomfield who leads the Applied Farmscape Ecology Program. 

From left, Jason Tesauro a researcher, Jesus Gonzalez a member of the field crops production team, and Anne Bloomfield examine a turtle found at the Farm Hub.

In 2018 the Farmscape Ecology team began developing a strategy for when and where to mow various areas of the farm. The plan was initially inspired by a turtle research project led by our partners at Hudsonia that explored turtles and their movement across the farm landscape.

“Based on the movement data from the study, our team has started to get a better sense of which areas turtles use on the farm and when. In some of these areas, farm activity and turtle movements coincide which puts turtles at risk. So, we decided as an organization that in some areas on the farm we would limit mowing during periods of high turtle activity to reduce mortality. Balancing turtle conservation and crop production is complex and is, for us, a work in progress. Our team continues to explore ways we can improve. We look forward to sharing both what has worked for us at the Farm Hub and what hasn’t, and to continue to support growers in the region with their ecological farming goals,” she says. 

The map, she emphasizes, is a joint effort involving production, grounds, and construction staff.  Over the years it has evolved from a print copy with Bloomfield’s handwritten markings to the digital version of today, updated and translated by Program Coordinator Teresa Dorado. It now includes a key that indicates optimum mowing times for the protection of turtles, insects, and grassland birds.

Click here for PDF version of mowing map

How does the map translate into action at the Farm Hub? The Native Meadow Trial is mowed in late winter, so plant stalks are left standing for the benefit of overwintering insects. Some of the floodplain forest edges on the map are either not mowed or see limited mowing from April to October to protect turtles that are on the move in spring and summer. The grassland bird field is mowed in October to avoid mortality during nesting season (spring and summer) when grassland breeding birds raise their young on the ground. 

A turtle found at the Hudson Valley Farm Hub.

The ”best” time to mow largely depends on the goals of a particular team or individual. Over the years, the ecology team at the Farm Hub has prioritized insects, birds, and turtles and created a plan to guide that vision. Recognizing that most farms do not have ecologists on staff, the Farm Hub team acts as a resource to the agricultural and conservation community and encourages farmers and land managers to reach out with any questions. 

While some changes are complex, some practical adjustments can be quite simple and be implemented right away, such as timing the mowing of powerlines or road edges when turtles are less likely to be on land. More challenging activities such as mowing headlands or harvesting crops adjacent to waterways require more innovation, troubleshooting, and planning.  The map encourages land managers to explore a variety of techniques.  For example, the height of the mower can be raised, the mower speed can be adjusted and slowed, and one can mow in certain directions to lower the chances of turtle mortality. 

“Any team or individual can sit down with an aerial of their farm and start sketching out what areas are being mowed and when. This could include crop fields, roadsides, lawns, meadows, drive lanes, powerlines, and other areas.  From there, one can make small changes, or large, more complex adjustments depending on the goals of the team and the operation. The first step is to get the conversation started and sketch out a plan and take it from there” she says. 
For more information about mowing email Anne Bloomfield at [email protected].

– Amy Wu

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