In the past decades, large-scale conservation programs have been implemented to halt the decline of farmland species. The mechanisms explaining the effectiveness of these programs remain poorly understood. Here we test the recent hypothesis that the effects of conservation management are determined by the ecological contrasts in limiting resources they create relative to the baseline situation. We examine responses of wintering seed-eating farmland birds to the experimental establishment of winter food plots in areas with contrasting food availability. We found that farmland bird abundance and species richness were strongly positively related to seed availability, regardless of compositional differences between agricultural landscapes. In line with the ecological contrast hypothesis, the responses of wintering farmland birds increased with increasing conservation induced contrast in a key limiting resource. Both contrasts and relative responses were negatively related to baseline food availability, but the absolute bird density in food plots was unrelated to baseline food availability. This indicates that both relative and absolute effects of conservation management need to be considered to properly evaluate the effectiveness of conservation management.