Managing your land for wildlife
Opportunities for farmers and rural landowners
Table of contents
Wildlife habitat improvement brings with it the flush of a surprised pheasant, the flash of a white-tailed deer, and the enjoyment of wildlife in your fields and around your home. Any farm can provide wildlife habitat at low cost while balancing production, conservation, and other personal priorities.
Whether you manage a full-time cropping operation or maintain a hobby farm, modest landscape and production-related changes—like those made by Minnesota landowners profiled in this publication—can provide wildlife food and cover. This gives you a greater chance to enjoy the wild creatures supported by that habitat.
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It pays to manage for wildlife
More wildlife and wild places allow you to enjoy the colors, sounds, and movement of animals through fishing, hiking, hunting, cross-country skiing, observation, and photography.
Often, the management practices associated with wildlife habitat improvement provide conservation benefits such as reduced soil erosion and better water quality.
Wildlife habitat improvement can reduce costs for home energy, cattle feed, and equipment fuel. Some rural landowners earn supplemental income by establishing private or public wildlife recreation preserves on their land.
Planning for wildlife
Whether planning minor modifications such as field-corner over-winter food plots or major landscape changes such as windbreaks or the restoration of a wetland, the following steps are helpful:
Do you want to generate income, improve hunting, or hear more birds while doing chores? Your goals and interests determine whether you manage for game species, songbirds, or other wildlife.
Inventory your natural resources
Look for wood areas, "edge" areas, streams, fields, wetlands, remnant prairie plots, marginal land, and potential neighboring habitat pockets. What is there? What is needed?
Identify production management and economic priorities
Talk to a wildlife resource specialist and decide which conservation/wildlife options fit your personal and production goals. Look at options for financial and technical assistance.
Considering your options
Each of the following practices improves conditions for wildlife and provides conservation and/or financial benefits.
- Conservation tillage provides food for birds, deer, and small mammals while reducing soil erosion and water runoff. Soil moisture is conserved and tillage costs reduced.
- Grassed waterways provide food and cover for birds and other wildlife. They also reduce gully erosion and trap sediment.
- Wetland enhancement and restoration provides water and food for wildlife, resting areas for migratory waterfowl, and nesting and wintering habitat. Wetlands maintain water quality and groundwater supply, while absorption and slow release of spring runoff reduces flooding.
- Field borders such as shrubs and grass-legume mixtures provide food for birds and deer and protective cover for ground-nesting birds and other wildlife. Trees and shrubs reduce drifting snow in winter and wind erosion in spring.
- Food plots of grain, legume, and grass provide over-winter food for wildlife and act as living snow fences, buffers, and filter strips.
- Windbreaks, shelterbelts, and living snow fences provide food and nesting areas for birds and mammals. Rows of trees and/or shrubs reduce soil erosion, livestock feed costs, and heating expenses, and conserve moisture in the field.
- Riparian buffers/filter strips provide feeding and nesting areas, winter shelter, and woody escapes for birds and other wildlife. Shade and fallen debris improve fish spawning areas. Buffers stabilize stream banks, reduce erosion, and filter out nutrients and sediment.
- Rotational grazing improves forage for grazing wildlife, increases insect populations for birds, and provides nesting cover. Permanent forage cover reduces soil erosion.
- Strip cropping provides food for pheasant and other birds, and nesting areas for grassland birds. Strips of forage or small grains can retard soil erosion and trap soil nutrients.
- Snags or dead trees provide breeding and nesting homes for more than 40 birds and 25 mammals in Minnesota. If you sell timber or conduct timber-stand improvements in your woods, ask the logger to leave as many snags as possible (DNR recommends at least three snags per acre of woodland).
Minnesota success stories
Wildlife success stories are occurring on farms across Minnesota. Some landowners introduced modest management changes while other producers gradually reshaped their farm to restore wildlife habitat. At the same time, all of these landowners created a careful balance between conservation and both personal and production goals.
Art and Millie Wendroth, beef and corn producers in Meeker County
Goal: Farmstead protection from wind, drifting snow
Management Plan: Woody, coniferous shelterbelt
Art Wendroth and his family planted a shelterbelt around their farmstead more than a decade ago to protect their home and cattle from winter winds and drifting snow. After developing a plan with University of Minnesota recommendations, Art ordered 1,200 tree seedlings from the DNR.
"Just a few days ago when I walked up to the house the trees were singing."
The shelterbelt includes spruce trees on high ground around the farmstead, ash and maple trees in low-lying, wet soil (to "lift" winds above the farmstead), and honeysuckle trees and caranga shrubs to catch drifting snow and attract birds.
By sheltering the farmstead, the trees protect the cattle through the winter and reduce home energy costs. "The windbreaks have worked out really well," Art says. "We don't even realize how cold it is until we get away from the farmstead because there just isn't a lick of wind around."
The Wendroths have been very successful at meeting their personal and wildlife goals. Pheasants roost among the ash trees, songbirds make their homes among the spruce, and an occasional hummingbird samples nectar from the honeysuckle trees.
"The abundance of birds is amazing," Art says. "Just a few days ago when I walked up to the house the trees were singing."
Art and Jean Thicke, dairy producers in Winona County
Goal: Reduced farm work and improved quality of life
Management Plan: Rotational grazing, pasture management
"We are trying to find a balance between profitability, our lifestyle, and protecting the environment."
Art and Jean Thicke practice rotational grazing on a 477-acre dairy farm tucked in the bluffs of the Mississippi River near La Crescent, Minnesota. Strongly committed to conservation, the Thickes switched from corn to pasturing in 1985. By "letting the cattle do more of the harvesting," the Thickes hoped to reduce erosion on their steeply sloped hillsides.
"We are trying to find a balance between profitability, our lifestyle, and protecting the environment," Art says. "We want to protect all three."
In fact, the operational change lowered their financial costs, improved soil quality, maintained milk yields, and freed up time to enjoy their land. Birds and butterflies responded to the increased grass cover and Art attributes the diversity of the birds to the diversity of his forage. "Birds are one of the quickest indicators of conservation," he says. "They respond faster than a lot of other wildlife to changes in management practices."
To further improve bird habitat, Art and Jean recently began delaying pasture weed clippings and grazing rotations during nesting season. Art posted 30 bluebird houses to supplement cavity nesting sites in his farm's bordering woods. In 1997 the Thickes saw 85 bluebird fledgings and several new bird species. Their management is paying off.
"I used to take our four-wheeler out to shut the pasture gates and only thought about my destination," Art says. "But now I prefer to walk out each day—observing birds and my pasture grasses the whole time."
Paul and Dorothy Ims, full-time corn and soybean growers in Yellow Medicine County
Goal: Improved water quality and on-farm labor reduction
Management Plan: Wetland restoration
A failing drainage system motivated Paul Ims to volunteer 67 acres of cropland for wetland restoration under the ReInvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve Program. He wanted to eliminate the drainage tile repair required on his 500-acre corn and soybean farm.
"You can't imagine the number of geese and ducks that come..."
"I was tired of pumping water every year out of those fields," says Paul. "And I figured that since my kids won't be coming back to farm, I could earn some money and improve the water quality by restoring the area to a wetland."
In 1992 Ims began production from a plan worked out with the Yellow Medicine SWCD. In addition to minor excavation work and the replacement of the old drainage tile with PVC pipe, Paul and Dorothy reseeded the surrounding upland areas with native grasses to protect the water and soil and to provide grassy nesting cover for waterfowl.
The Ims hoped for increased wildlife, but the number and types of waterfowl that use the wetland exceeded their expectations.
"You can't imagine the number of geese and ducks that come," Paul says. "We have our friends and family over once in a while to hunt—but mostly I just enjoy seeing and listening to the geese when I'm out in the fields."
Anita Zelenka and Paul Lines, part-time livestock producers in Chippewa County
Goal: Inviting landscape for future generations
Management Plan: Riparian buffer
When Anita Zelenka and her husband Paul Lines bought their 40-acre hobby farm, most of the land was already enrolled in CRP. Their nearly 35 acres of grassland is surrounded by neighboring cropland and the Lac Qui Parle state wildlife management area, and is cut in two by a stream.
"We have a future landscape vision that revolves around our sons... We're trying to create a place that they will want to come back to..."
"We have a really good setup for wildlife," Anita says. "We have water, grassland, and food in the form of our neighbors' grain waste. The only thing we're missing is more woody cover."
After talking with a Chippewa County SWCD representative, Anita and Paul developed a long-term plan that included yearly tree plantings to build permanent woody vegetation for food and cover. They received technical and financial assistance from the DNR to help plant and pay for weed control mats and a mix of more than 200 trees.
During the spring of 1998, as new participants in the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program and with further financial assistance from DNR and Pheasants Forever, Anita and Paul planted another 1,200 trees along their seven acres of qualifying riparian land.
"We have a future landscape vision that revolves around our sons Nik and Dylan," Anita explains. "We're trying to create a place that they will want to come back to once they're older."
Today Nik and Dylan spend their weekends helping out with the livestock, canoeing, and fishing. Anita keeps a wildlife journal to record the deer, mink, muskrat, beaver, great blue heron, hawks, and coyotes that visit The Morning Star Farm.
Sherman and Anne Olson, full-time corn and soybean growers in Swift County
Goal: Conservation, recreation, supplemental income
Management Plan: Windbreaks, riparian buffers, food plots, grass restoration
As a result of these and other conservation efforts, the Olson's farm provides ideal wildlife habitat.
Since buying their farm in 1973, Sherman and Anne Olson have pioneered conservation and wildlife management efforts while farming nearly 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans.
In 1982 the Olsons began ridge-tilling their cropland—a conservation practice that improved soil and water quality while providing winter food for wildlife. The Olsons planted several over-winter plots of corn and soybeans to supplement the grain waste left in their fields after harvest. In 1987, with technical advice from Swift County NRCS, the Olsons enrolled some of their farmland into CRP to build grassy nesting cover for pheasant, quail, and chukar.
Recently the Olsons planted windbreaks along a riparian area they enrolled in the Continuous CRP. They wanted to provide woody cover and winter food for wildlife. "After the ice storms in 1996, we realized that more woody cover was needed," Sherman explains. "The ice just decimated our bird population."
Several agencies and conservation organizations, including the DNR and Pheasants Forever, provided technical and financial assistance to help pay for the costs and planting of chokecherry, honeysuckle, and cottonwood and red cedar trees.
As a result of these and other conservation efforts, the Olson's farm has become ideal wildlife habitat.
Pleased with the results and the abundance of game, the Olsons established the Cottonwood Creek Hunting Preserve in 1995 to generate supplemental income and to allow other local families and metro recreationists access to some of Swift County's prime hunting land.
Where to go for help
- Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Land-retirement program that establishes perennial grass or tree cover on environmentally sensitive cropland or marginal pasture land. Administered by the Farm Services Agency (FSA).
- Continuous CRP. Offers continuous sign-up, and automatic acceptance of eligible applications, with emphasis on filter strip and riparian buffer practices. Administered by FSA.
- Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program (WHIP). Helps landowners plan and cost-share wildlife habitat improvements in association with active farming operations. Administered by Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
- Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Provides technical and financial assistance for cropland or livestock facilities management, including wildlife habitat improvement. Priorities established at the state level and administered by NRCS.
- Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). Assists with wetland restoration and protection. Options range from permanent easements to 10-year restoration cost-share agreements. Priority given to higher-value, permanent wildlife habitats. Administered by NRCS.
- Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Assists in restoration and protection of wildlife and fish habitats on private land. Priority is given to wetland restoration, native grassland establishment, and riparian lands restoration through 10-year agreements. Administered by U.S. Fish & Wildlife.
- ReInvest in Minnesota (RIM) Reserve Program. Protects and restores riparian lands, wetlands, marginal farmland, and other environmentally sensitive areas, such as pastured hillsides, agricultural woodlots, and living snow fences. Coordinated by the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources in combination with Soil & Water Conservation Districts (SWCD).
- Pheasant Habitat Improvement Program (PHIP). Provides technical and cost-share assistance to landowners planting 10- to 16-row woody cover shelterbelts, restoring small wetlands, establishing over-winter food plots, or maintaining grassland nesting cover. Coordinated by the Minnesota DNR—Wildlife.
- Stewardship Incentives Program (SIP). Assists in restoration, management, and protection of nonindustrial private forest land for forest stand improvement and habitat enhancement. Administered through DNR—Forestry.
- Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR), (651) 296-3767.
- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MN DNR), Wildlife, (651) 296-3344; Forestry, (651) 296-4491.
- National Audubon Society/Minnesota Audubon Council, (651) 225-1830.
- Nature Conservancy, MN Chapter, (612) 331-0700.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA. Contact your local county office.
- Soil and Water Conservation Districts, USDA. Contact your local county office.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State Private Lands Office, (800) 814-6290.
- University of Minnesota Extension
Financial assistance and cost-sharing
- Ducks Unlimited of Minnesota, (612) 820-8174.
- Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources. See Technical Assistance.
- Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. See Technical Assistance.
- Minnesota Waterfowl Association, (612) 922-2832.
- Natural Resources Conservation Service, USDA. Contact your local county office.
- Pheasants Forever-National Office, (651) 773-2000.
- Soil & Water Conservation Districts. Contact your local county office.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. See Technical Assistance.
- Buffers: Common-Sense Conservation. USDA. Government Printing Office. 1997.
- Establishing Food and Cover Plots. Pheasants Forever. 1998.
- Establishing and Managing Nesting Cover for Wildlife. MN DNR. 1989.
- Establishing Shelterbelts. Pheasants Forever. 1998.
- Going Wild With Soil and Water Conservation. USDA, Soil Conservation Service. May 1985.
- Landscaping for Wildlife. MN DNR.
- Minnesota Conservation Reserve Program Information Series, Post-CRP Management Options and Issues. Energy and Sustainable Agriculture Program. Minnesota Department of Agriculture. December 1996.
- The Monitoring Toolbox. MN Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. 1998.
- Windbreaks for Wildlife. University of Nebraska, Extension. EC 91-1771-B.
- Woodland and Nongame Wildlife: A Guide to Management and Preservation. MN DNR.
- Woody Cover Plantings for Wildlife. MN DNR. 1987.
Information contributed by Lance Kuester, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Financial contributions by Minnesota Pheasant Habitat Stamp Program, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, University of Minnesota Extension Service including the Renewable Resources Extension program and U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Photos provided by University of Minnesota Extension Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and North Dakota Game and Fish Department.