Sorghum and sustainability go hand in hand for the Love family helping them to conserve water, improve their soil health and create premium habitat for pheasant and quail.
The central High Plains in western Kansas is a location where populations of upland birds like pheasant and quail flourish and thousands of sorghum acres collide. Farmers know it, sportsmen know it, and the impact this ecosystem has on working lands, wildlife populations, water conservation and the rural economy in Kansas is significant.
Conservation is key in this region. It has been for decades, and families like the Love family in Gray County north of Montezuma, Kansas, have taken steps to ensure this ecosystem remains mutually symbiotic for the long-term sustainability of their farm and the land.
Garrett Love started farming with his dad Greg six years ago—a return to the farm made possible by starting a hunting operation. The Love family now hosts close to 125 visitors each year who share a common passion for hunting and wildlife conservation.
“We are able to have people come in from around the country and enjoy the outdoors,” Garrett said. “This component has helped us add value to what was already an asset on our operation and make a return on it.”
A large component to the Love family’s hunting operation success is utilizing minimum and no-till practices and planting sorghum.
“[My dad] has always loved wildlife, and he’s always loved conservation, protecting the soil and protecting the moisture we have,” Garrett said. “Moving to minimum-till then
to no-till on most of our farm has been a huge plus for our production, and we’ve had a lot of good sorghum acres from that, which has been really good for the wildlife.”
Not only does sorghum thrive in the toughest of conditions with minimal water, Garrett said, but it also has characteristics that aid wildlife, and it is a food source that pheasant and quail love.
“We are always impressed with [sorghum’s] toughness and its ability to perform even in conditions that are not always great,” Garrett said. “It really fits the environment we have out here.”
Garrett added sorghum creates good cover for game birds whether it is standing or harvested.
“With [sorghum] you can leave more stalk with big leaves that protect [the birds] where they’re able to use that as habitat,” he said. “Out in the corn, you can see [the birds]. They’ll peck around and eat the corn, which they like too, but they don’t like being in the wide open where they cannot hide as much. In a [sorghum] field, there is tremendous cover.”
There are many other components that contribute to healthy bird populations. The Love family began moving some of their corner ground outside of irrigated circles to grass, which Garrett says gives pheasant room to have cover year round, plus nesting, food and water all within one small area.
Organizations like Pheasants Forever (PF) and Quail Forever (QF), the nation’s leading upland wildlife habitat conservation organizations, are helping private landowners like Garrett and his father put habitat like this into practice while also working one-on-one with them to identify conservation solutions to improve their operation.
Chris McLeland, PF and QF director of field operations for the south region, said finding win-win scenarios where they can put habitat conservation on the ground and help strengthen the farmer’s bottom line at the same time is key.
“There’s this concept or this thought sometimes that agriculture, working landscapes and wildlife conservation are mutually exclusive,” he said, “when in reality they’re very much mutually inclusive.”
Through precision technology, data and the help of their own ag conservation specialists, PF and QF are taking a renewed approach to driving conservation decisions.
“We really strive to use real life data from the machines [farmers] are running,” McLeland said, “but also the observational data from the producers themselves to find these areas, these pockets, where we can really help increase the bottom line, increase profitability and put habitat conservation on the ground.”
McLeland said on the arid High Plains where water is a real limiting factor both for wildlife and agriculture production, native grasses, like the kind the Loves put on some of their corner ground, provide cover for wildlife while also bearing root systems that help with water infiltration. He added agricultural crops like sorghum do the same thing and are a value-added crop to include in a farm rotation.
“When you marry a practice such as a native grass sitting directly adjacent to standing sorghum, you’re just setting the table and creating a great recipe for a lot of birds and a lot of opportunity.”
This relationship between upland birds and sorghum creates a natural partnership between PF and QF and the sorghum industry.
United Sorghum Checkoff Program Sustainability Director Kira Everhart-Valentin is leading this effort on the industry’s behalf, and it is a partnership she said will lend to continuous improvement by sorghum producers, to farm profitability and to wildlife conservation.
“We’re really looking forward to partnering with Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever because they are organizations that have really put a lot of effort and energy into combining the goals and the common interests of wildlife conservation and working lands and agriculture,” she said. “Their approach is one that does the best that it can to capture the best of both worlds, and we are excited to further that.”
McLeland said as PF and QF have a strong desire to work with producers on working landscapes, partnering with the sorghum industry makes sense.
“One thing I really enjoy about working with landowners in the state of Kansas is they have a real passion and pride for the land that they farm, and wildlife con-
servation and resource conservation at-large runs deep,” McLeland said.
The partnership will link the unique relationship between sorghum and upland wildlife habitats to create greater returns on the farm, steps producers like Garrett Love are already taking to ensure their operation remains sustainable for years to come.
“A lot of what we do for long-term sustainability and the different practices is for future generations,” Love said. “My five-year-old already says she’s a farmer. She’s a farm girl. You want to set it up to where that is something that’s a possibility in the future.”
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 Issue of Sorghum Grower magazine.