By Loretta Sorensen
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
Most consider conservation practices to be a long-view payoff. Chris Hitzeman sees them as avenues to profitability.
The South Dakota farmer uses soil-quality and soil-health programs as the foundation for his self-guided pheasant-hunting business.
When Hitzeman purchased his 700-acre Charles Mix County farm in the early 2000s, he brought along two decades of corporate experience and the analytical skills of owning his own Minneapolis-based software business.
He intended to move away from hunting pheasants on public land and develop his own private hunting location. Most of his land is made up of riparian areas, trees, sloughs and grasslands recently enrolled in public and private conservation, and habitat programs, creating ideal pheasant- or deer-hunting settings.
Early in the process of identifying and evaluating his farm’s resources, Hitzeman recognized an opportunity to establish a “fair chase” pheasant-hunting business involving his land and a network of surrounding farms.
What he’s developed during the past 16 years is U-Guide South Dakota Pheasant Hunting, a seven-week hunting experience that draws hunters from across the nation (www.uguidesdpheasants.com).
“What I’ve learned is that hunters want that ‘typical’ South Dakota pheasant-hunting experience, where both birds and hunting locations are plentiful,” Hitzeman said. “I could see that, in order to bring hunters to my locations, I had to support production of as many naturally produced pheasants as possible.”
Pheasants live out their lives within a home range of about a square mile (640 acres), requiring all habitat components (nesting cover, brood habitat, winter cover and food plots) to be in close proximity. Ideally, a minimum of 30 to 60 acres (about 5 to 10%) of this range should be nesting cover. Larger blocks of cover are preferable to narrow linear strips.
Hitzeman’s challenge was to augment the need for habitat, food and shelter in an economical, sustainable manner that also contributed to the health of his farm’s ecosystem.
“To begin with, I considered how productive each portion of land would be in terms of hunting, grain crops, seed crops, livestock, wind development, etc.,” Hitzeman said. “This is an age-old real estate principle, to find the highest and best use for every portion of land.”
He understood production on every acre wasn’t an option, and long-term profitability would suffer if he didn’t build and maintain soil health. As a result, Hitzeman considered how conservation programs and practices fit with his pheasant-hunting business model.
“Soil is our primary asset,” he said. “If we take care of it, it will take care of us. We can build resiliency by implementing soil-health principles but will destroy our land and ourselves if all we do is take from it.”
He recognized that the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and some Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs provide the necessary elements pheasants need to thrive.
“In general, CRP acres give pheasants nesting habitat, meet some feeding needs and provide winter shelter,” Hitzeman said. “Around 2014, after completing a prescribed burn on some CRP acres, I realized I could reseed those acres with specific grass and native flowers designed to feed and support a large pheasant population.”
With the help of his Soil Conservation District, NRCS and Pheasants Forever, Hitzeman identified grasses designed to provide high-standing winter and low-standing nesting and brooding cover for pheasants. Prescribed burns and herbicide application help suppress invasive grasses and noxious weeds.
Pheasant chicks that hatch in June grow and mature rapidly through July and August, requiring massive quantities of insects. Hitzeman’s forage mix includes blooming plants, which naturally draw insects during those months. The flowering plants also provide habitat critical to the survival of pollinators.
Eight varieties of grass and eight native prairie flowers now flourish in the area — including white clover, Canadian milk vetch, alfalfa, Maximilian sunflower, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, pale purple coneflower, red clover, purple prairie clover, big bluestem, little bluestem and switchgrass. Seeding rates vary on the different land segments.
Hitzeman has also established 25 food plots across marginal land to help provide food and year-round shelter for pheasants, deer, songbirds and birds of prey. Grains in the food plots include corn and millet interseeded with hairy vetch and a variety of other cover-crop species, which serve as both an additional food source while contributing to soil microbiome activity.
Spraying a low rate of glyphosate over the plots, also known as chemical mowing, helps set back cover crops until corn plants are established. Plot crop rotation also helps manage weeds.
Additional conservation projects include planting 45,000 trees in 17 shelterbelts that are surrounded by 30-foot alfalfa/clover firebreaks. The shelterbelts are comprised of silver maples selected for their tall windbreak characteristics, plum bushes as a wildlife food supply and shelter, and eastern red cedars because of the effective winter shelter pheasants find around this tree species.
A portion of Hitzeman’s acreage is enrolled in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW) permanent wetland easement. Restored wetlands provide water for wildlife and seasonal habitat for ducks, and preserve cattails where pheasants seek winter shelter.
Hitzeman’s self-guided, fair-chase hunting business won’t work just anywhere. However, the conservation practices woven into developing and managing his “pheasant farming” could provide many farmers with a skeleton plan to help diversify income and improve per-acre profit while building soil health and supporting the farm ecosystem.
On his cropland acres, Hitzeman rotates winter wheat, corn and soybeans. Strip-harvested wheat, with cover crops sown into the stubble, leaves ample stubble — a winter shelter for pheasants. Any waste grain from cash crops is used by pheasants and provides desirable hunting conditions for pheasant hunters. Cash crops are cultivated with no-till practices, netting some $125 per acre.
In refining how to integrate his conservation practices with his pheasant-hunting business, Hitzeman assesses his options and maximizes conservation benefits.
Jim Ristau, South Dakota Corn director of sustainability, applauds the willingness to maximize soil quality and wildlife habitat rather than aiming for maximum crop production.
“We need diverse landscape in our rural areas,” Ristau said. “The strategy Chris adopted addresses all five soil-health principles—maintaining soil armor, minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining plant diversity, keeping a live plant root in the ground and integrating livestock [wildlife] — which means it’s a healthy strategy for any of the landowners he works with.”
Matt Morlock, South Dakota Pheasants Forever assistant director, said the state leads in pheasant harvest with some 1,000,000 roosters harvested annually. He sees efforts to bolster pheasant and other native wildlife (deer) populations as economic boosts for the state.
Approximately 700 roosters (averaging $100 gross revenue per bird) are bagged on his land each year. About 40% of Hitzeman’s income is generated from his hunting business. Another 40% comes from farm program payments and the rest from cropland cash rent.
“I believe the key exercise in identifying an alternative business model on the farm is to start by looking outside traditional markets like grain and livestock,” Hitzeman said. “Most of us think of farming as growing crops or raising crops. We need to expand our thinking and see ourselves as conservation farmers, pheasant farmers, precision conservationists and soil farmers.”
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