Encouraging Pollinator Habitats in Production Agriculture

Stuart Gauthier, Shields, Sara Rogers

Stuart Gauthier and Sara R. Shields

Worldwide, an estimated 35% of all food production benefits from pollinators. The demand for pollinators is growing as the volume of pollinator-dependent crops has expanded 300% in the past 50 years. Grasslands and pastures provide conditions that favor pollinator establishment. Unfortunately, research has shown that pollinators are being impacted by a reduction in this type of undisturbed habitat. With the decline and fragmentation of habitat, wild and domesticated bee numbers have fallen.

Additionally, adverse weather conditions, including rain and flooding over the past three years, have significantly reduced nectar flow and, subsequently, the honey produced by more than 30,000 licensed hives statewide. Fortunately, Louisiana is blessed with more than 400,000 acres of undisturbed grasslands, which can be seeded with legumes and forbs, herbaceous flowering plants, to increase foraging opportunities for bees.

Bayer Feed-a-Bee Project

In 2018, the LSU AgCenter was awarded a $5,000 grant from the Bayer CropScience company to enhance and expand projects underway to establish pollinator plantings. This funding has provided AgCenter extension agents with resources to establish pollinator plantings to complement previous pollinator projects. The goal of the Bayer Feed-a-Bee grant project was to improve pollinator habitats in Louisiana by planting multiple large acreage pollinator forage sites across the state. Specific objectives of the grant included increasing Louisiana pollinator species numbers by providing diverse habitats through grant partners, creating public awareness of the importance of feed-a-bee pollinator efforts, and teaching youth about pollinator preservation.

To address the first objective, investigators partnered with agents and specialists to distribute seed to participants. Additionally, AgCenter and University of Louisiana at Lafayette experts provided technical assistance pertaining to site preparation, planting and cultural practices, wildflower production and beekeeping.

Fulfilment of the grant requirements also included a wildflower and pollinator training held at the ULL research farm in Cade in November 2018. Training participants toured the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development-funded wildflower seed processing facility housed at the Cade research facility. A pollinator habitat planting demonstration using hand planting methods and a utility tractor with 6-foot no-till drill were conducted during the training.

The goal to create approximately 200 acres of pollinator habitat across the state of Louisiana was undertaken in late fall 2018. Prior research indicated that under Louisiana’s climatic conditions, cool-season species of pollinator mixes perform best when planted in late September through November because attempts to plant outside this time frame generally result in poor performance. Weather conditions dictated the exact timing of planting because cooler temperatures and adequate soil moisture are needed for good stand development.

One ton of Pastures for Pollinators seed mixture from Grassland Oregon was provided to agents and extension specialists in October 2018 to distribute to cattle and forages producers in their area. This 10-seed mixture of Fixation balansa clover, Frosty berseem clover, Kentucky Pride crimson clover, Dixie crimson clover, Mihi Persian clover, Dynamite red clover, white clover, purple top turnips, phacelia and hairy vetch is designed to be planted along with cool-season forages like ryegrass at a rate of 10 pounds to the acre or alone at 20 pounds to the acre.

Planting methods varied among participating partners. Some clipped, sprayed with glyphosate, and plowed in preparation for planting, while others clipped and used a no-till drill to plant. The use of a no-till drill was encouraged because it allows for minimal field preparation, creates low erosion potential and limits soil disturbance to resident pollinators. To extend the planting area, some of the forage producers in the Lafayette, Iberia, St. Landy and St. Martin parishes who rented the no-till drill from the local Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) office in fall 2018 and 2019 were provided the Pastures for Pollinators seed mix to plant along with their cool-season ryegrass.

Replicating Success

To replicate the success of the 2018 efforts and to further evaluate seed performance, investigators replicated the project in fall 2019 with an additional 1,350 pounds planted on 135 acres. Participants agreed to monitor the plots because the pollinator mix was expected to start flowering and providing pollinator habitat into fall 2019 and spring 2020. Planted areas could create a more permanent habitat, depending on adaptability and persistence.

The wide availability of pastureland for pollinator habitat and the annual fall planting of cool-season grasses created positive reception among growers who could simply add the pollinator mix into their previously existing production practices. Cattle producers benefited from the nitrogen-fixing ability of the legumes in the mixture, the high nutritive value of the mix for grazing or hay production, and the potential for 10 months of forage and pollinator habitat availability extending from November to August. Enhancing the collaborative partnership between cattle producers and pollinator habitat development had the greatest potential for growth and adoption.

In all, 335 acres of pollinator habitat were planted in 10 parishes by more than 30 producers. Plots were visually evaluated and monitored in February and April 2019, and again in 2020, by extension agents and specialists — and on one occasion by the president and research director of Grassland Oregon, Jerry Hall. In both years, white, berseem, Persian and balansa clovers performed best in areas with Louisiana’s wet and saturated soil conditions. Redesigning a pasture pollinator mix to only include these varieties may prove to be more cost effective and successful for growers.

Stuart Gauthier is an agriculture and natural resources extension agent in Breaux Bridge, and Sara R. Shields is the statewide coordinator for the Louisiana Master Gardener Program with offices in New Roads and Baton Rouge.

(This article appears in the summer 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

A man standing in field of grass and clover.

Pollinator mix plant growth in field. Photo by Stan Dutile

A man standing in field of grass and new clover.

Clover regrowth in previously grazed pasture. Photo by Stan Dutile

Red, yellow and purple flowers in field.

Plants from Pastures for Pollinators seed mixture grow in a field. Photo by Wink Alison

Three men with drill seed planter and tractor.

No-till drill is used to establish strong stands of Pasture for Pollinators seed mix and ryegrass for cattle grazing and forage production. Photo by Stuart Gauthier

Pasture with Bayer Feed a Bee sign posted on fence.

Signage created public awareness of producer efforts to create pollinator habitats. Photo by Stuart Gauthier

White clover growing in field.

Despite wet winter conditions and saturated soil issues, Frosty berseem and Mihi Persian clover performed well in both 2018 and 2019 plantings. Photo by Stuart Gauthier

8/5/2020 5:08:24 PM
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