How Cover Crops Double as a Good Farming and Wildlife Practice.

Cover crops are a newer method of farming that prolongs the health and productivity of soil with strategic planting. For farmers this sounds like a great idea when it’s available for implementation, but today we are exploring another demographic that thoroughly enjoy cover crops. Any guesses? How about wildlife. From deer enjoying the variety of eating options that are rich in essential nutrients to smaller rodents utilizing the additional cover, these farming method may have more of a wildlife impact than most would consider.

Where and When Should I Plant a Cover Crop?

Whether you are planting in a field or in your food plot there is a certain planting time for your cover crop. They can be planted following your harvest of your cash crops like corn or soybeans. Before September 15 will provide the best results for these crops. The earlier you choose the cover crops for your area the better, it gives you more time for research as well as insures you get the right variety. It is essential that you take time to learn about the cover crops you are using, if you manage your cover crops poorly you most likely will end up with a poor result.

Why to Consider Planting Cover Crops from a farming perspective?

As mentioned before cover crops help to contain weeds, build up your soils and reduce erosion. But they are also used in a different facet like wildlife conservation. Brassicas and tuber plants can also help with breaking hardpan. A hardpan is a layer of compaction that is hard for roots to grow through, but these cover crops can assist in breaking the hardpan apart. This will make it easier from future plant to grow. Cover crops are often a key role for organic farmers to keep their soil stable, within the strict organic guidelines.

Courtesy of Jacob Hofer

Examples of Cover Crops.

Depending on the soil type and directed mission, there can be many options for cover crops that also double as a wildlife drawing sanctuary. For instance; rye, wheat, barley and oats are commonly used according to Sare Org. All of those grass cover crops are high carbohydrates giving nutrients and energy for animals preparing for winter.  

Leveraging Cover Crops for Wildlife Benefits

Earlier in the article, it was mentioned that cover crops can often bring in wildlife and essentially work as a food plot and double as a farming technique. For some who farm and also hunt, implementing a cover crop plan could save on traditional food plot or wildlife plots.

Courtesy of Jacob Hofer

Measuring Success

With the use of cover crops bringing in more wildlife it could be helpful to see what animals are visiting your property. A trail camera could be a great addition to help you monitor the new activity. In your fields there will also be a helpful hold of nitrogen and other nutrients for the next years crop. It is pressing that hunters and farmers strive to keep wildlife management a main priority. This wildlife helps to improve the diversity of your area, for yourself as well as future generations. 

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My name is Miranda Wright and I am currently a junior at Western Illinois University majoring in Agriculture Science with a minor in Agriculture Economics. I am from Henry, Illinois where I grew up on a grain and cattle operation. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post!



Fowl Farming

There are many types of farming practices that we think about daily as agriculturalists. Examples being your standard conventional farming, no-till, organic, etc. In these practices we are all after a common goal, to produce high healthy yields for a profit. Some people have a different outlook and strategies on how to produce those yields. What if there is another type of farming out there, a type of farming that is not trying to produce high bushel crop, but instead, high yields of waterfowl and wildlife. I’m talking about a farming practice for the conservationists, for the guys that like to duck, deer, pheasant, quail, and turkey hunt. This is a farming practice that is for hunting purposes. Basically planting a crop and leaving it to the wildlife as a food source.  Some might be a little confused by this strategy and think that planting a crop and maybe not even harvesting it is absurd.  In someway this is true, but our vision is habitat. We are doing this to create a healthy environment not only for wildfowl, but for ourselves as well.

The main focus here is waterfowl, focusing directly towards duck hunters. The only thing we are trying to achieve is to have a good waterfowl population for our own hunting/recreational pleasure. A lot of people want an area for waterfowl to stage and relax. Some guys may or may not know how to achieve this, but most all of them do not see the small benefits this creates. “Cells” are your first plan of attack, it doesn’t matter how many or how big, that all depends on how much room you have. Lets say you have 80 acres that you want to turn into waterfowl habitat. Making a levee around your 80 acres then levee off each crop section. You want to split it up into your “cell” sections. Example being 4 sections of 20 acres or 2 sections of 40 acres, how you split it is up to you.  We want to do this that way you have a crop rotation of moist soil crops and a grain crop. Most of us know that corn in the dominant plant when it comes to staging waterfowl. This is all true, but planting corn year after year starts to deplete your nutrients in your soil, and more and more fertilizer goes on for a better corn crop. What you might try is planting millet, milo, buckwheat, flax seed, natural grasses, even wheat, in three of the cells, and plant one cell with corn. What this will do is provide early season food and late season food. Early season being your grass species and your corn late season when they need that high energy from starch to migrate. As temperatures rise and drop, these different types of food provide ducks with what they need. They will fluctuate from moist soil plants early in the year to corn later in the year when temperatures begin to become cold. If you create something like this I can promise you will hold waterfowl for years to come. “If you have food and habitat, you will have ducks, if you have food, habitat, and weather, you will have a lot of ducks”-Frank Bellrose

The grass species will act as a filter for water that you pump or drain in. Cleaner water is a must for our ecosystem and yes as stewards of the land we are getting better about water quality. These grasses will act as a natural watershed, which is an adopted practice being brought up by many farmers. There is even some government funding for these practices. What the grasses will do is filter out most of the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, along with other nutrients in the water, grass species will actually take up and use these nutrients in their own growth. With water being on your millet or Milo this will also provide habit for waterfowl. Grass species are also excellent for keeping fertile soil. Taller the plant gets the deeper roots go, when in time with crop rotation each year,  you will have a healthier corn plant. Remember the more root depth you get the healthier the plant you have. The clean water that has been depleted of excess nitrogen and other nutrients can be flooded onto your corn acres. The corn cell you can do what you want with. If you want to pick it and make some yield off of it you can or leave it standing that’s your choice to make, it still provides food and habitat.

Using grasses in your cells you provide healthier soil and water quality for years to come. Management of these areas are crucial in order to get the outcome you are looking for. If you rotate crops every year with grasses and corn, you will have a much better corn crop, much more fertile soil and much better water quality, with low inputs of fertilizer, and yes a high yield in waterfowl and wildlife numbers.

by:  Jason Hire

I am an Ag Science major at Western Illinois University. I love everything there is about agriculture, though I didn’t grow up on a farm I grew up hunting with my dad and grandfather. I guess this is where my love of Ag came from because I wanted to give something back to nature. The only way I could think of was learning how to grow crops better.


Food Plots for Thought?


Both farmers and hunters don’t always get the most positive image in today’s society, but it’s important to realize that a common goal between these two types of people is managing wildlife. Growing up I remember tagging along with my dad and older brothers when they went driving around and I quickly learned it was a good sign to see deer in the fields, especially close to hunting season. However I also learned that for farmers, seeing deer feeding in their fields is a nuisance. Not only deer, but wildlife in general can become a nuisance when they start feeding on farmers’ crops. To be a good hunter, you need to be a good conservationist as well. Hunters should be taught that managing wildlife is the main reason why there are hunting seasons. One way to manage wildlife is by planting food plots.

What are food plots and why are they so important to wildlife management?

Food plots are sections of land designed as a quality source of food for deer and wildlife to utilize year round. There’s no one way to plant a food plot. It can be a variety of legumes, grains, or wildflowers, but doesn’t have to be limited to these options.  One point to remember about planting a successful food plot is location. It needs to be in a spot where there is cover, and agricultural fields are usually out in the open where deer and other wildlife are exposed. Wildlife will more likely utilize the food plot and minimize pressure in farmer’s crops if provided with a food plot that provides nutritional value and cover year round.

Photo Credit: Ryan Tolbert

The importance of food plots to wildlife management lies in the nutritional and protein value that wildlife can benefit from. For example, hunters want to see deer at their fullest potential in body size, antler growth, and especially in prime health. To reach full potential, deer need more than the 8% protein they are getting from corn. Planting Brassicas, for example, which are cool season annuals, can provide around 30% protein. Deer are browsers by nature and a food plot is land to be browsed for it’s content.

Why do food plots benefit hunters?

Food plots are used to draw in and keep wildlife around the area that hunters use. If you don’t own land to hunt on, getting permission and access to hunting ground isn’t always easy. When they do get the opportunity, hunters want to make that ground as attractive to wildlife as possible so they can successfully participate in hunting seasons and manage the wildlife population.

Another reason food plots are beneficial to hunters is that they offer diversity to the wildlife in the area. Did you know that around 70% of a deer’s diet can come from food plots? In the Midwest, corn and soybeans are the most common crops and they have limited growing seasons starting in the spring and going through the summer months. Food plots offer diversity where crops in the Midwest can’t always offer the diversity needed to provide for the diets of wildlife . When the corn and soybean fields are harvested, wildlife will be more likely to stick around if they have the nutrition and protein source available. In turn, this provides a much more desirable animal to harvest.

Photo Credit: Ryan Tolbert

What’s in it for the farmers?

Damage to crops done by wildlife is frustrating, especially when there’s not a 100% guarantee of putting a stop to it. Ultimately, the more attracted to a separate, diverse, year round, and secure food plot wildlife are, the more likely they will want to leave the crops alone. In the spring, agricultural fields are in the early emergence stages and if provided with no other option, deer will be out in the fields feeding on the young plants.

Since food plots are meant for places with cover, it is sometimes not on tillable land. Farmers and/or landowners would like to see land being used to the most potential that it can be used, otherwise the area may become so overgrown and undesirable for any wildlife to establish and keep a habitat in that area. Farmers are often thought of as caretakers of the land, leaving it in better condition than what they started with. Allowing food plots on their land is a smart decision on managing the wildlife population on their respective farms.

Planting the Seed…

Whether you’re a hunter, farmer, landowner, or all the above, implementing food plots is beneficial to your management goals of the land. Food plots are important to meeting or exceeding the goals of wildlife management as well. Here in the Midwest, specifically Illinois, agriculture and hunting are both successful industries. It’s crucial for hunters and farmers to continue to have wildlife management as a common goal. To learn more, contact your local agronomist or state’s wildlife biologist. Start your food plots today!


marissatolbert11My name is Marissa Tolbert and I’m from Jerseyville, IL. Currently a senior at WIU, I’m studying Agriculture Business with a minor in Accounting. Since starting school at Western, I have become involved in several student organizations on campus including Sigma Alpha, Sportsman’s Club, and Ag Council. I am also a member of National Wild Turkey Federation. In my free time I love spending time with my family back home or enjoying the great outdoors whether it’s hunting, fishing, or trapshooting. I hope you enjoyed reading my blog and if you have any questions feel free to contact me at