A couple days ago, Monika came running to find me.
"Mom, I just saw a butterfly! It had orange on it. Do you think it was a Monarch?" she said excitedly.
Her report made me smile. I'm thrilled that she was observant enough to notice the butterfly and that she immediately thought of Monarchs. After all the time we invested in our Monarch project last summer, I'm glad the experience wasn't forgotten over the winter.
If it was a Monarch that Monika saw, it'll be the first one we've seen this year. I've been watching for the orange and black beauties, but the only butterflies I've seen so far are a Tiger Swallowtail and a couple Red Admirals.
Monarch butterflies normally return to Stearns County in late May and early June, which means they are right on time this year. That news is encouraging, considering that the start of the Monarch migration was later this year than ever before. We've been following the Monarchs' northern migration on the Journey North website - www.learner.org/jnorth/Monarch/index.html.
We also learned from following along on Journey North that the Monarch population increased in 2014. That's the first increase in several years. And while it's good news, the Monarch population, which is estimated at 57 million butterflies, is still 80 percent below the historical average of 300 million butterflies. As recently as the mid-1990s, there were one billion Monarchs. The Monarch population is now small enough that a couple bad winter storms could send the species into irreversible decline.
As excited as I am about the Monarchs' return, which means they have another chance to increase their population, Monika's sighting also makes me nervous.
I've been watching the fence lines for milkweed since the cows went out to pasture a month ago. There just doesn't seem to be as much milkweed as last year. A lot of the areas where there was lots of milkweed last year, there is very little milkweed this year.
Milkweed is the only plant on which Monarch butterflies lay their eggs and the only plant Monarch caterpillars eat. Without milkweed, there cannot be another generation of Monarchs. As milkweed has disappeared from the land, the Monarch population has dwindled.
Where has the milkweed gone? Mostly, it's been treated as a weed and killed with herbicide. Now, I'm not against killing thistles and other problematic weeds - we spray them, too - but milkweed, despite its name, is not a weed. It's a valuable wildflower of immense importance to Monarchs and other pollinators.
Milkweed has also disappeared due to land development, conversion of CRP ground back to cropland, and the removal of fence lines between fields. Milkweed often grows on the edges of fields near wooded areas, as well, so when fields are "cleaned up" to return the field boundary to the edge of the woods, prime milkweed habitat is destroyed. According to Monarch Watch, 147 million acres of Monarch habitat - and the milkweeds that grew there - have been lost since 1992. (http://www.monarchwatch.org)
As farmers and landowners, I believe we can help increase the milkweed population and, hopefully, help Monarch numbers increase as well.
Since milkweed plants don't re-establish themselves very well, the best way to help milkweed is to protect established plants. That means not spraying them, weeding them out, or plowing them under. Keep in mind that milkweed can survive some mowing and tillage, but it cannot survive being sprayed.
Another good reason to avoid spraying anything - both herbicides and pesticides - near fence lines and field edges where milkweed most commonly grows, is that the spray will also kill the Monarch caterpillars living on the milkweed. Milkweed also provides habitat for dozens of other species, including tree frogs, bees, and other butterflies. None of those species tolerate being sprayed, either.
If you're really crazy about Monarchs, like we are, there are ways to establish new milkweed populations, too. Several Monarch organizations are working with landowners to provide milkweed seeds and seedlings for restoration projects, with the goal of reestablishing a million acres of Monarch/milkweed habitat a year.
But if we are all just keep an eye out for the milkweed on our property and be a little more careful about where we spray, we can do a lot to protect milkweed - and help Monarchs - with just a little effort. That way our children's children will be able to enjoy these magnificent butterflies and their amazing migration.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 75 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have three children - Dan, 8, Monika, 6, and Daphne, 2. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.