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Dave Goracke, Kathryn Boyer and Jeffrey Steiner look at native wetland plants established in a seasonal drainage. Link to photo information
Farmer Dave Goracke (left), NRCS fish biologist Kathryn Boyer and ARS agronomist Jeffrey Steiner look at native wetland plants established in a seasonal drainage next to a perennial ryegrass seed field. Click the image for more information about it.

Grass Farming and the Environment

By Laura McGinnis
October 5, 2005

Under the right circumstances, grass seed farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley can make a profit--and help wildlife to thrive--during the rainy fall and winter seasons, according to Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and cooperators.

From October to May, the valley averages 37 inches of rain, which flows over the region's grass seed fields into seasonal channels. Western pond turtles, Chinook salmon, redside shiners, red-legged frogs and many other aquatic creatures thrive in the vibrant channels, with nearby trees and brush supporting even more wildlife.

ARS researchers at the Forage Seed and Cereal Research Unit in Corvallis, working with Oregon State University (OSU) scientists, are determining which species use the channels and how farmers manage these fields to preserve natural resources.

Nearly all the fish found in the channels are native to the Willamette Valley. Scientists believe that’s because land use there has changed little over time. Today's grass seed fields are similar to the wet prairie grasslands that covered the region before settlers introduced agriculture.

The ARS scientists discovered that many fish take shelter in the seasonal drainages. Agronomist Jeffrey Steiner observed that some even reproduce and find nursery habitats there. Agronomist George Mueller uses Geographic Information System tools and satellite images to determine which conservation practices are being used in areas thriving with fish and wildlife. Hydrologist Gerald Whittaker develops computer programs for calculating economical combinations of conservation practices.

Many of these practices preserve water quality. According to ARS plant physiologist Stephen M. Griffith, no-till farming--which doesn't disturb soil--also maintains water quality, boosts seed yields and saves farmers nearly $80 per acre, compared to conventional tillage.

Mark Mellbye, an OSU extension agronomist, works with farmers using conservation practices such as planting wildlife buffers and maintaining drainage and field border vegetation.

According to Steiner, many local farmers expressed interest in conservation and allowed the scientists to conduct research on their fields.

Read more about the research in the October 2005 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief in-house scientific research agency.