Enhancing Wildlife Habitat on Farmlands
Marja H. Bakermans
Amanda D. Rodewald
All wildlife need 4 basic habitat
components for healthy communities:
Ohio is losing approximately 90,000 acres of farmland
a year, primarily to urban sprawl. Between 1992
and 1997, Ohio lost 2,120 farms—
more than a farm a day. Ohio farmlands
can provide important habitat for wildlife. Managing a productive
farm can be compatible with the
needs of wildlife. For example, animals
that can live in agricultural areas
include barn owls, eastern meadowlarks,
fox, turkeys, bobwhite quail,
Management for wildlife can provide
several benefits to landowners. Abundant wildlife
populations and natural areas provide recreational opportunities,
such as bird watching, fishing and hunting.
Management practices for improving wildlife habitat
often provide ecological benefits such as reduced soil
erosion, higher water quality, and increased soil moisture.
Some wildlife habitat improvements (like windbreaks)
can reduce costs of home energy, cattle feed and
equipment fuel. Creating habitat for bats and certain birds
that consume insects might reduce the need for costly
insecticides. Some landowners can receive additional
income by establishing private or public wildlife recreation
preserves on their land. In addition, many habitats
intended to protect wildlife can serve as outdoor classrooms
for children, who can learn to identify plants and
animals as well as learn how human and environmental
needs can be balanced.
If you want to manage your farm in a way that is
sensitive to wildlife needs, you first need to decide which
wildlife species you want to attract. For example, are you
interested in game species (like deer) or grassland birds?
Each wildlife species has different habitat requirements.
All wildlife need 4 basic habitat components for healthy
communities: food, water, shelter, and space. Food and
water are necessary for nourishment.
Shelter is needed for protection
against weather and predators. Space
is essential for activities such as
gathering food, attracting mates and
raising young. Each wildlife species
requires a unique blend of these elements.
Next, identify key areas that could
be used by wildlife. These areas may
include old orchards or house sites, bottomland and streamside
areas, fencelines and hedgerows, snags and fallen logs,
rock outcrops and caves. Once key wildlife areas are protected,
you can determine which food and cover components
need to be provided or enhanced.
Key Areas Used by Wildlife
Several different types of valuable wildlife habitats
are found on farmlands:
Odd areas are sites not well adapted for cultivation, such
as seeps, bogs, caves, roadsides and ditches. Allow these
areas to grow to provide habitat to a variety of animals.
Permanent trees, shrubs and grasses can protect areas of
shallow water near or within crop fields. Generally, exclusion
of livestock from some areas provides the best vegetation
diversity and structure for wildlife habitat. In addition,
consider reducing your mowing frequency (especially
excellent locations to plant native wildflowers and grasses.
Old building structures such as barns are another good
Abandoned Fields and Edges
Field borders containing trees, shrubs or grasses provide
food for birds, small mammals, fox and deer, and
provide nesting cover for many animals. Field borders
adjacent to woodlots may be particularly productive for
wildlife. Retaining a more natural or gradual field border
will encourage use by different animals.
Orchards of fruit trees with grassy herbaceous understory
attract wildlife by providing food, cover, and nesting
areas. Birds, such as bobwhite quail, might nest in
grassy understories, while songbirds and mourning doves
nest in fruit trees. In addition, fruit allowed to fall to the
ground is an excellent food source.
Riparian Buffer Strips
Riparian buffers are strips of permanent vegetation
along waterways designated to intercept pollutants, reduce
erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat
for wildlife. Streamside forests, in particular, help to
maintain aquatic habitat for fish by providing shade, food,
and in-stream woody structure for fish species. The width
of the buffer zone and the plant species used will depend
on the type of wildlife desired. A minimum width of
100-150 feet on both sides of the stream is often recommended
to provide significant ecological and wildlife
Farm ponds can be managed to attract diverse wildlife.
Encourage vegetation growth around the shoreline
to stabilize the edge and provide food and cover for
wildlife. Herons, egrets, ducks and kingfishers may be
attracted to these ponds for food resources. Floating logs
or rafts allow loafing and sunning areas for salamanders,
turtles and ducks. Be sure to keep livestock out of the
pond or away from the banks to reduce soil erosion and
sedimentation. If livestock must use the pond, restrict
them to a small portion of the shoreline.
Snags are standing dead trees left for wildlife to use
for food, shelter, and nesting. Cavity-nesting birds often
comprise 20-40% of the birds in the forest, but a variety
of mammals, amphibians and reptiles regularly use cavities
too. Snags and dead limbs also are an important
source of perches for birds. Red-tailed hawks, kestrels
and other raptors that forage or nest in the open country
use high perches to survey the land for prey. Low perches,
less than 10 feet high, can provide sites for singing and
catching insects by songbirds such as eastern phoebe,
eastern meadowlarks and northern mockingbirds. If leaving
dead trees is not an option, artificial nest cavities can
be created. For example, nest boxes are commonly used
by bluebirds and tree swallows in open fields.
Brush piles can provide dense cover for ground-nesting
birds, rabbits and other small mammals. Stack layers
of logs at right angles to each other to make a base for
the pile. Place treetops, old Christmas trees, limbs, stones
or stumps on top of the base to complete the pile. Ideal
piles are 4 to 8 feet tall and from 10 to 20 feet in diameter.
Place piles close to other food and cover sources,
preferably along forest edges, field corners or along
streams and marshes. Isolated piles may receive little
use or could be detrimental if long distances between
piles and suitable habitat make animals vulnerable to
Fencerows and hedgerows are important to wildlife
for traveling, nesting, roosting and for cover from weather
and predators. To improve suitability for wildlife,
fencerows should be at least 30 feet wide and contain a
variety of native plant species. This type of habitat can
be easily created by modifying mowing practices or by
planting soft mast-producing shrubs.
Reducing or eliminating mowing or tilling areas adjacent
to fences also can create hedgerow habitat. Briars
and seedlings often naturally establish themselves along
this border. Once these areas have become established,
they can be placed on rotational burning or mowing
patterns so that they do not become too large for the
mowing equipment. In any given year, one-quarter of
the fence may be treated. If shrubs and trees are to be
planted in a fencerow, plant species like sumac, wild
plum, dogwoods, crab apples, hawthorns, chokecherry,
and sassafras in dense clumps to provide food and escape
cover for wildlife. The Ohio Department of Natural
Resources Division of Forestry provides resources and
advice for planting fencerows.
Habitat Improvement Practices
There are many simple ways to improve farmland
habitat for wildlife. The benefits of attracting wildlife
can often outweigh any damage through economic loss.
Hawks, owls and fox feed on rodents that destroy grains
of nuisance insects. For example, one bat may eat up to
3,000 insects in a night.
Fallow Fielding and Crop Rotation
A good way to create cover for wildlife is to incorporate
a crop-rotation practice that leaves recently cropped
lands to lie idle for a period of time. For example, plant
corn for three years followed by a year of cover crop.
Turn the cover crop over each fall and plant winter rye
to reduce erosion. Also, consider a rotation of corn or
milo followed by three years of fallow field and then
back to the row crop. No matter what crop you plant,
including a year or two of fallow fielding or legume
cover will benefit wildlife species.
Harvesting techniques often coincide with peak nesting
of grassland songbirds such as bobolink, eastern
meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow. Many bird nests,
young birds and deer fawn are lost each spring with
farmers mowing hay or brush-hogging fields. Most grassland
songbirds nest from May to August and must be
free of disturbance to produce a successful clutch of
young. If possible, avoid mowing or clearing thick,
brushy areas from April to August. For ground-nesting
birds the best time to mow is late March or early April
and mid-August and September. Place the cutting blade
to a height of six inches to prevent further loss of wildlife.
Also areas of grass left standing during the winter
can provide habitat for early nesting the following spring.
In areas where fields are maintained as open areas
without grazing or haying, strip mowing or mosaic
mowing can increase habitat diversity for songbirds and
small game. Strip mowing should be done in long strips
30-50 feet wide. The mosaic technique involves mowing
small patches in an irregular pattern and allows clusters
of blackberry, buckbrush and tree seedlings to grow. Be
sure to mow these clusters before saplings and shrubs
are too big for your tractor or mower.
Fire and Controlled Burns
If done properly on a periodic basis, burning can
improve the quality of grass and brushland habitats. Fires
remove accumulated dead material and encourage the
growth of valuable seed-producing plants and herbs and
stimulate legume germination. The abundant herbaceous
growth that follows a burn provides browse and cover
for deer, grouse and rabbits and attracts insects and the
songbirds that feed on them. Small controlled burns are
recommended for areas too steep for tillage or mowing.
Burns should be kept small and controlled with firebreaks
it does more harm than good if done incorrectly or in the
wrong season. See a professional forester, biologist or
natural resource manager before implementing plans, and
be sure to obtain the proper permits first.
Organic farming eliminates the use of fossil-based
nitrogen fertilizers, and laboratory produced insecticides
and herbicides. Organic farms can be highly commercialized
operations, which, at first glance, are indistinguishable
from neighboring conventional farms. Through
planned crop rotations, organic farms use biological technology
to replace chemical technology in fertility and
pest control. As energy prices increase, yield per unit
energy invested becomes a valuable measure of productivity.
In some cases, organic farmers produce about twice
as much per unit of energy as chemical farmers. In general,
wildlife benefit from organic farming through an
increase in diversity of plants and insects, reduced soil
erosion, less nitrate pollution in streams, and reduced
direct mortality or reproductive failure from insecticides
Integrated Pest Management
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is the name given
to the practice of using a combination of treatment
methods to keep pests from ruining a crop. With IPM,
the term “treatment” does not always imply the use of a
chemical control. Non-chemical pest control strategies
include cultural, mechanical, and biological controls as
well as good sanitary practices. Natural enemies of farm
pests include predators, parasites and diseases. These
natural enemies are often species-specific and can reduce
or eliminate pests without negative effects on the
Examples of integrated pest management include crop
rotation, use of pesticide resistant crops and livestock.
Place fencing or guards around trees to stop rabbits, small
mammals and deer from gnawing and browsing trees. Mow
around the base of fruit or Christmas trees to discourage
damage by small mammals, which avoid open areas that
expose them to predators such as hawks and owls.
Pesticides can harm wildlife either directly by killing
them or indirectly by poisoning their plant and animal
food sources and, in turn, expose them to the chemicals
or reduce their food supply. In the United States, approximately
282 million acres are treated with agricultural
pesticides (herbicides and insecticides) annually.
be exposed to these chemicals. Strong evidence exists
that pesticides can have adverse effects on beneficial
insects and birds. Pesticide exclusion strips approximately
30-60 feet wide at the edges of fields can increase the
abundance of birds, small mammals and butterflies in
these areas. If you must use a pesticide, be sure to understand
its properties and apply it correctly. Organochlorines
should be avoided because they persist in nature
and become significant sources of mortality and reduced
reproduction in wildlife. Members of this class (some of
which are illegal) include benzene hexachloride, lindane,
chlordane, heptachlor, aldrin, DDT, dieldrin, endrin,
endosulfan, toxaphene, Keopone and mirex.
Food plots provide overwinter food for wildlife. Leave
10-12 rows of unharvested, standing crop along the entire
length of field edges (especially sides that adjoin
fencerows, woodlots or wetland areas). Corn is the most
common forage plant for wildlife, but annual rye, millet
and buckwheat are also beneficial. During harsh winters
and low acorn production years, turkeys and deer will
use corn heavily. Twelve 50-foot rows of standing corn
will support 20 turkeys for 3 months. Perennial crops
such as clover, alfalfa and other legumes can be planted
to provide food for turkeys, songbirds, rabbits and deer
in the summer. In addition, sunflower beds along field
edges provide more food for birds and small animals. Of
course, maintaining food plots may increase wildlife
damage to nearby row crops, so carefully consider your
Key Points to Remember
plants generally provide the best food and cover for
in some areas of rural Ohio, providing as much natural
area as possible is best.
strips or patches of natural vegetation. Natural areas
that are connected to one another allow animals to
Programs to Consider
Several federal and state voluntary programs exist to
aid farmers and landowners in improving and maintaining
habitat to benefit wildlife. These community-based
conservation programs provide a flexible design of conservation
practices and financial incentives to address
a program for landowners who want to develop and
improve fish and wildlife habitat on private land.
WHIP helps landowners plan and cost-share wildlife
habitat improvements in association with active farming
(PESP) is a program that forms partnerships with
pesticide users to reduce the health and environmental
risks associated with pesticide use and implement
pollution prevention strategies.
which reduces soil erosion, protects the nation’s ability
to produce food and fiber, reduces sedimentation
in streams and lakes, improves water quality, establishes
wildlife habitat, and enhances forest and wetland
resources. Farmers are encouraged to convert
highly erodible cropland or other environmentallysensitive
acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or
native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips or
is a program targeted to address water quality, soil
erosion and wildlife habitat issues related to agricultural
use. The program uses financial incentives to
encourage farmers and ranchers to voluntarily enroll
in contracts of 10 to 15 years in duration to remove
lands from agricultural production.
offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore
and enhance wetlands on their property. The WRP
goal is to achieve the greatest wetland functions and
values, along with optimum wildlife habitat, on every
acre enrolled in the program.
Visit Ohio State University Extension’s web site “Ohioline” at:
All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis
without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.
Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension
TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-1868
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