Baling season is in full swing across rural America. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, it’s just as common to see a bale along the highway as it is in a field.

Grassland in Minnesota has legislators and landowners debating the fate of more than 175,000 roadside acres.

Collen Bradford Krantz digs deeper into the important source of hay and wildlife habitat in our Cover Story.

For generations, Minnesota farmers have made a habit of mowing and making hay from the grass growing in roadside ditches. But since 2016, state officials have been increasing awareness of an existing but largely unpublicized or unenforced law that had, since the mid-1980s, required farmers to obtain permits for such work.

Jed Falgren, Minnesota Department of Transportation: “There has been a great emphasis on understanding what all the different benefits are that occur in the roadway. And probably the largest has been the expansion of interest in pollinator and monarch butterfly… That escalation had people coming to our department and asking us to step up enforcement of the statutes that were in place.”

State transportation officials say boosted enforcement guidelines would have required farmers to have, among other things, a $1 million liability insurance policy with the state listed as one of those insured.

Grant Breitkreutz, Stoney Creek Farm, Redwood Falls, Minn.: “It was shocking to us that the permit had been on the books for a long time and never been enforced or really dealt with….We had never heard of it, period.”

Grant Breitkreutz used to bale hay on 120 miles of roadside ditches in the early years of his cattle operation. The work returned more than 700 additional bales a year for feeding his cattle during the winter.

According to state officials, the 1980s-era law was originally designed to give the offspring of ground nesting birds, like pheasants, time to hatch and move on before the ditches were mowed. But since the measure was rarely enforced, farmers mowed and made hay in the ditches in late June and July as they had done for generations.

State Rep. Chris Swedzinski, who farms in southwest Minnesota, was frustrated with the ban on mowing and baling the ditches before August 1, and was among the legislators who, last month, successfully placed a second one-year moratorium on all enforcement.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski, Minnesota State Legislator: “When someone goes in the ditch, we are the ones that fix the ruts and plant the grass in those spots. We’ve done this for 80 years…We think the department is just wrong to put this red tape on farmers when the system has been working great for years.”

Swedzinski is frustrated the state’s roadside maintenance costs may increase if the work done by farmers in exchange for hay is delayed until late summer. Various interest groups met over the past year to discuss the best strategies, but the debate remains unresolved.

Tina Markeson, Minnesota Department of Transportation: “Ideally, we’d have a vegetation management plan and do the maintenance to get the desired results we want. I’m not saying haying isn’t part of that. It’s a tool that can be used but needs to be at the right time.”

But defining that ‘right time’ is where much of the dispute lies.

Krist Wollum, Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, president: “That time of year, especially a year like this, any grasses that you are haying, as they mature and ripen, they become woody and dry and have less feed value and are less palatable for the animals.”

Neighboring South Dakota requires farmers in certain counties to wait on haying ditches until after June 15 or July 10 at the latest. Iowa allows those with a permit to bale hay along certain roads after July 15.

Minnesota farmers worry that leaving ditches unmowed until August could lead to the maturing, seeding and spreading of noxious weeds.

Grant Breitkreutz, Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association, vice president: “When we don’t mow, invasive species take over – namely Canadian thistles are a big problem around here – and spread into our fields out of the ditches.”

But Minnesota officials say state maintenance crews would mow ditches earlier in the summer on a case-by-case basis. Farmers harvesting hay also have, at times, inadvertently hampered state road crew’s efforts to manage weeds.

Tina Markeson, Minnesota Department of Transportation: “They go through and put down herbicide and no more than two hours later, there’s a farmer going through haying it.”

Proponents argue that several species, including the monarch butterfly, whose numbers are dwindling, have lost too much tall-grass habitat in Minnesota. The state did lose about 700,000 acres of CRP ground between 1992 and 2012. However, over those two decades, much of the rural land went to new development, which increased by roughly 400,000 acres. The state also saw a slight increase in forest and pastureland acreage while cropland decreased slightly.

Farmers argue that unmowed ditches may mean motorists fail to see approaching deer and other wildlife, creating the potential for more accidents.

Many established producers also worry that younger and smaller-acreage farmers will take the brunt of the delayed hay harvest.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski, Minnesota State Legislator: “I have a neighbor down the road from my main farm who works in town as a plumbing and heating guy but loves agriculture, and bought this land to raise a few goats with his wife and some cattle and he, quite frankly, doesn’t have the land to go out and just put up hay for the winter.”

Todd Thompson, who farms near East Chain, Minnesota, does harvest hay from the ditches adjacent to his land, but wouldn’t be heartbroken if he lost the option to mow earlier in the summer. If he had to spend several hundred dollars for a new insurance policy, he would stop haying ditches.

Todd Thompson, producer, East Chain, Minn.: “You are in a tractor and it’s on an angle and something could break down, you could tip over. …It’s hard and it’s dangerous.”

As the interested parties debate the issue in the coming year, Minnesota will be under the legal microscope.

Tina Markeson, Minnesota Department of Transportation: “A lot of other states are watching Minnesota this year to see how everything is handled.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz, colleen.krantz@iptv.org