Cover Crops and Wildlife Conservation

6091b291-f0cb-4b76-ad76-9e69723d26cd Story and photo by Nathan Pflueger, PF and QF Nebraska Precision Ag Coordinator

Who needs another tool within their toolbox to help put conservation acres on the landscape? I would argue that we all need as many tools as we can get our hands on because what works within one field, operation, county, or even state, isn’t going to work for another. If you haven’t thought about utilizing cover crops for conservation, I would urge you to consider them and their vast potential. 

However, before we get any farther, what is a cover crop? Historically, a cover crop was something planted between cash crops that was to be left on the soil and undisturbed until the next cash crop was planted. Today, we see some producers stick to the true definition of a cover crop while some producers harvest a portion of the biomass for a variety of reasons. The more important thing to realize here is that numerous producers are willing to utilize cover crops as a part of their operation.

Researchers and producers have been buzzing about cover crops for years when it comes to benefiting soil health and potentially the producers bottom line. More recently, research has begun to look at if and how cover crops can benefit a variety of wildlife including our beloved upland birds. The high diversity in cover crop species is of benefit because it allows us to put cover crops on the landscape within a variety of cropping systems and at different times throughout the year. 

Depending on when cover crops are planted and terminated determines when and how the biomass will benefit upland game birds along with other wildlife. If utilized correctly cover crops can potentially offer nesting areas, brood rearing habitat, and even winter cover which all become important within a landscape dominated by row crop agriculture.

Eastern Nebraska is home to highly productive soils, good rainfall with the potential for irrigation, and high land prices. Together, these factors have favored a landscape dominated by corn and soybean production. Lack of interest in perennial habitat and crop diversity have caused declines in pheasant, quail, grassland songbirds, and other wildlife populations in ag landscapes.

In Nebraska we have begun utilizing cover crops as an annual conservation solution on acres that are within traveling distance for pheasants from perennial habitat areas, which are strong holds for the game birds within our area.

The Pathways for Wildlife Program (PFW), which is funded through a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET), has allowed us the flexibility to work with producers to find those niche areas where we can make a difference for wildlife at some point throughout the year.

In the first two years of the program, we were able to enroll 3,686 acres utilizing a variety of cover crop mixtures with varying planting methods, planting dates, mixtures, and cropping systems. Moving into year 3, we plan to continue learning, but look to provide small grain incentives and forgone income payments to producers who leave substantial cover crop biomass standing until the following planting season.

As we gain acres and a wider variety of contracts, we will be able to better monitor wildlife use across the different cover crop mixtures through small mammal trapping, pollinator surveys, and camera traps.

Our end goal in Nebraska is to continue learning and further refine our programs to help make a landscape level difference. It is important to realize that cover crops are not the silver bullet to restore pheasant and quail populations, but rather another tool to help diversify the landscape.