Skip to Main navigation Skip to Left navigation Skip to Main content Skip to Footer

University of Minnesota Extension

Extension > Environment > Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Education > Fish, wildlife, and habitats > Managing your land for wildlife

Print Icon Email Icon Share Icon

Managing your land for wildlife

Opportunities for farmers and rural landowners

Gigi DiGiacomo, Department of Applied Economics, University of Minnesota
Les Everett, Department of Soil, Water and Climate, University of Minnesota
James Kitts, Fisheries and Wildlife, University of Minnesota
Kevin Lines, Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

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.

Click any image to open slide show.

It pays to manage for wildlife

Recreational benefits

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.

Conservation benefits

Often, the management practices associated with wildlife habitat improvement provide conservation benefits such as reduced soil erosion and better water quality.

Financial benefits

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:

  1. Set goals

    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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

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

Federal programs

State programs

Technical assistance

Financial assistance and cost-sharing


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.

  • © Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved.
  • The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer. Privacy