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Cover Crops Benefit Wildlife Too

By Zac Eddy, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever
Senior Farm Bill Wildlife Biologist

As many within the agricultural community are coming to realize, cover crops can dramatically improve soil health and prevent erosion and runoff while providing benefits like increased field productivity or added livestock forage.  It’s easy to see the overall environmental benefits that reduced erosion and runoff can have for aquatic species or the effect that healthy soils have for soil fauna, but perhaps lost in that discussion are some other important and immediate benefits that cover crops can have for our wildlife.

When I speak with people to help them make wildlife management plans, I often use two words repeatedly: “diversity” and “interspersion.”  Generally speaking, the more diversity of habitat types provided and the more interspersed those habitats are, the more potential a property has for wildlife.  For example, if I was referring to a quail habitat plan, I’d discuss nesting, brood-rearing, and escape cover, and if a person was standing at the edge of one habitat type, they should be no more than about 40 yards from the other two habitat types.  That same philosophy holds true from a broad-scale perspective as well.  At the landscape-scale, diversity and interspersion of habitat still play a critical role in creating healthy wildlife populations.  Providing diversity, in this context, ensures that wildlife have ample choices to locate their required resources.  Cover crops contribute to habitat diversity.  That’s the overarching principle behind nearly any other statement I can make about their benefits.  

By ensuring that fields have green cover, even in idle years, it allows the ground to be used by wildlife.  For the most part, unless weeds are allowed to grow, fallow fields present no benefits to wildlife (from insects to deer).  However, by adding any kind of cover, you’ll make a tract of ground more suitable to wildlife.  Cover crops like clovers, vetch species, and peas can provide great habitat for native pollinator species.  This has important advantages for agriculture and the ecosystem.  Bee populations have been rapidly declining across the country.  This decline has the potential to adversely affect agricultural production, since many commodity crops are pollinated by bees. 

Many of the common species used as cover crops are selected by deer.  Studies done on deer feeding habits in Kansas have revealed that white-tailed deer diets are comprised of about 50 percent farm crops.  In the fall, winter, and early spring, that percentage is much higher.  I’m sure there are farmers reading this thinking of all the deer they’ve seen grazing their wheat or alfalfa in the fall and winter.  That’s because of the nutritious forages available at that time of year.  By adding cover crops to your cropland rotation, you have the opportunity to shift grazing impacts away from commodity crops.    

Finally, cover crops can provide important habitat for birds.  Rye, triticale, and wheat will all provide nesting habitat if allowed to grow over 14 inches tall before termination.  Moreover, cover cropped fields can provide brood-rearing habitat (our most limiting habitat component for birds in the state) for foraging chicks.  As I alluded to previously, insects are attracted to diversity.  A field with a single cover crop will have more insects than one with nothing growing.  Adding cover crop species will also increase insect numbers and diversity.  This is great for young birds that require insects as their main food source in the spring.

Please contact your Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at offices.usda.gov) for assistance.  More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov.  Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas.  USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.