Enrolling Playa in Conservation Program Was a ‘No-brainer’

A close-up view of Ed Ackerman’s restored playa. Photo courtesy of Abe Lollar.

Before he enrolled his playa in a conservation program, Ed Ackerman can remember a total of three times when they were able to cut wheat from the area.

Ackerman has one playa on his land in Brewster, Kansas, just outside of Goodland, and when he and his wife inherited it from her father, they noticed some serious issues around farming in that particular spot.

“It was just something that didn’t work,” he said of farming in the playa. “Between farming it and putting it in a playa conservation program, it was kind of a no-brainer. ”

Playas—also called buffalo wallows, lagoons, and mud holes—are relatively small, round, shallow depressions found in western Kansas and across the Southern High Plains. Their basins are lined with clay soil, which collects and holds water from rainfall and runoff, creating temporary lakes. In a wet spring, playas in agricultural fields often flood out, resulting in crop failure.

In 2018, Ackerman enrolled his seven-acre playa in the Migratory Bird, Butterfly and Pollinator Habitat State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement practice, part of the  USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) that focuses on restoring playas in crop ground.

Restoring the wetland involved some dirt work including removing excess sediment from the basin and breaking terraces, allowing water to reach the playa. A grass buffer was also planted around the playa to keep sediment from surrounding fields from washing back into the basin.

Ackerman said he has already started to see the difference from all those changes.

“Since last spring when we planted the grass on the outside of it, on the buffer, one of the things I noticed was how much longer the water stayed in there this time,” he said.

He also noticed the native plants, which they used to have to kill in order to plant crops, quickly grew back in the playa basin — making things easier for him and more beneficial for the wildlife.

Those plants are an important part of a playa ecosystem, which provides essential shelter and food for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds as well as resident prairie birds. In this dry landscape, playas are the main source of water and support 185 bird species, 450 plant species, 13 amphibian species, and 37 mammal species at some point in their life.

For Ackerman, enrolling playas in conservation programs is “a pretty darn good idea.”

“The playa wasn’t doing anything to speak of as a piece of farm ground because most of the time there was water in it,” he said. “So we thought if we could do something else with some conservation and have some wildlife, it would just be a plus.

“It got discouraging with nothing growing there. Instead, we did something else with it and got paid a little to do that.”