Going Native

Study looks to find which native species performs best to help crop yields

wildflower buffer_bradford_08042013_0009At the edge of a soybean field, wildflowers grow at Bradford Research Center. CAFNR researchers are looking at how certain native species can help improve pollinator populations, provide refuge for wildlife and help landowners recuperate some costs from marginal land.

Almost every farm has a poor spot that never seems to produce quality yields. It could be a clay knoll or land such as a riparian area or forest edge that makes work an annual hassle.

One way to bring back dollar production from these areas is with conservation buffer zones. Thanks to a University of Missouri study, knowing which plants work best will come out of research done at Bradford Research Center in Columbia.

“What we are looking at is how adding native wildflowers in unfavorable production areas can help bring in more pollinators, provide a refuge for wildlife and bring in extra income for a landowner through assistance programs,” said Ray Wright, research specialist at Bradford Research Center.

Wright planted the plot consisting of ten native species selected for flowering potential for bumblebee use in 2010 at the edge of a corn-soybean rotated field at the center owned by the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. The varieties Black-Eyed Susan, Ox-eye Sunflower, Prairie Blazing Star and White Beardtongue were some of what was planted in an area near a drainage ditch that never was productive for researchers. Beginning another year of study with Research Specialist Terry Woods, the plot is starting to show some results.

Bumblebees gather pollen from a purple coneflower.Bumblebees gather pollen from a purple coneflower.

“We got this idea from several of the studies and information put out from the Missouri Department of Conservation and National Resources Conservation Services,” said Woods. “It normally takes a native plant restoration about three years before it is fully established. When we first planted we were seeing very few pollinators, but now we are easily seeing three to four species of bumblebees out there. And bumblebees are the best pollinators around.”

Entomologists have long praised the bumblebee for being a productive pollinator. They can be 20 percent more efficient than flies or other insects thanks to their corbiculate. Often called a “pollen basket,” the corbiculate is found in a variety of bee species on their hind legs that makes for a greater chance of pollination to occur.

A problem that keeps many beneficial insect numbers low on farms is when insecticides are sprayed.

“Yes it is important we control pests that are detrimental to our crops, but instead of spraying in the morning when the flowers are first opening up and the good insects are out, spray in the evening to help reduce the chance of hurting those important pollinators,” urged Woods, who has more than 20 years of entomology research.

blazing star_0002Prairie blazing star was one of the ten species selected for the study.

With the recent decline in honeybees nationwide, promoting bumblebee and other pollinator populations are becoming a major management practice landowners should be thinking about.

“They are extremely important in agriculture production,” said Woods. “Especially if you are a vegetable grower. More than 300 different crops out there need these insects. A soybean or corn farmer might argue that they don’t need them as much, but these buffers also will benefit wildlife and increase the value of your land.”

Several bird species, especially quail, will take advantage of these new areas to add to a more diverse environment on a property.

“You are producing seeds for the adult quails to eat throughout the year and providing a variety of insects that the chicks will absolutely love,” said Wright. “The buffer zones also can provide for a successful brood. It truly is something special to see these birds come back.”

Both Wright and Woods added that these areas also help with controlling soil loss through reduced erosion and to slow chemical runoff into waterways.

To implement a native stand, it can be at times a hefty upfront cost, but the researchers at Bradford believe it’s worth it.

“Your establishment can be high with seeds costing $500 plus per pound, but in the long run, you can improve soil quality, enhance wildlife habitat and create more of a sustainable environment,” said Wright. “To help with those costs, look to assistance from USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). A lot of times you can recur much of the establishment cost that before was just lost on a poor yielding crop.”

Research will continue on the study at Bradford to find out which of the native crops will work best. Results thus far will be presented at the annual Quail and Pollinator Field Day at Bradford Research Center on June 19. The free workshop will feature talks from wildlife and plant experts tours of the research plots. For more information, visit http://bradford.cafnr.org/events/ or contact the center at 573-883-7945.

Located 11 miles east of the MU campus on 591 acres, Bradford Research Center has the largest concentration of research plots in crops, oils and related disciplines in Missouri. As a research laboratory and outdoor classroom, faculty and students investigate wastewater management, entomology, pest and weed control, alternative crops, organic transition techniques and the impact of hailstorms. Bradford engages the community through workshops, field days, corn mazes, the Tomato Festival, native plant and pumpkin giveaways and partners with University organizations, including Campus Dining Services, to improve MU’s sustainability.

For more on the research center, visit their new website at http://bradford.cafnr.org/

black-eyed susan_0003The infamous black-eyed Susan is prevalent across the state and can be used in a variety of native plantings.