Wayne Fredericks examines plants in his pollinator habi

Wayne Fredericks planted a pollinator habitat where he mowed grass in the past. The planting saved him time and money and helped pollinators in the process. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

Five ways to help wildlife on your farm

February 4, 2021 | Bethany Baratta

Ever feel like your spring and summer months are spent constantly mowing around your livestock barns? Have unproductive areas of your fields that are just becoming money pits? Consider enriching your farm with habitat vital for wildlife.

Adam Janke, Iowa State University (ISU) Extension wildlife specialist, presented five ways farmers can help wildlife on their farms during an episode of Crops TV. This online program replaces the popular Integrated Crop Management Conference and Crop Advantage Series this winter. It’s sponsored in-part by the Iowa Soybean Association.

Here are some tips to consider:

1.      Improve habitat in existing natural areas.

When a farmer saw native prairie plants being shaded out by an encroaching forest canopy on his Hamilton County farm, he called in specialists to use prescribed burnings and cleared out trees to encourage prairie plants in non-productive acres.

“There’s a million ways you can improve habitat in existing natural areas,” Janke said.

Besides interseeding native plants and flowers, farmers might also consider strategic uses of fire, grazing or haying to improve or enrich prairie or wetland environments.

2.      Mow less and mow less often.

Are you mowing around your livestock barns? Does your local co-op mow around buildings and offices frequently?

“We’d like to offer you a better idea,” Janke said. “Create pollinator habitats for native bees and butterflies, like monarch butterflies that need nectar resources and places to raise their young.”

Janke pointed to ISA member Wayne Frederick’s conservation efforts as an example.

“When he learned about the plight of the monarch butterfly and got interested in conservation efforts, he decided to convert mowed areas to pollinator habitats,” Janke said.

This conversion promotes wildlife habitat and a rich diversity of grasses and native plants.

“We love to see more people across rural landscapes take this up as an opportunity to improve habitat on the edges of the production operation,” Janke said.

Dive into Wayne’s efforts here.

An Iowa State University research study by John Tyndall compared the costs associated with maintaining one acre of grass per year versus one acre of pollinator habitat per year. Results showed an 83% cost savings by converting one acre of grass to a pollinator.

In addition to an economic advantage, there are also noted benefits to water quality, soil health, carbon storage and wildlife habitat.

3.      Create habitat in profit-loss areas.

Yield results from a 5-year ISU study estimated that 12% of cropland acres in Iowa lose more $100 per 2.5 acres every year. Those acres would likely yield better results as pollinator habitats, Janke said.  Are there areas in a field that are not making—maybe losing—money year after year? Consider transforming these areas into habitat. Yield maps can help identify where a pollinator habitat might be the best fit on the farm.

4.      Layer conservation for wildlife, soil, and water.

Conservation efforts not only benefit soil and water quality, but they also stack to benefit wildlife habitat, Janke said.

One example is a CREP wetland. The wetland is designed to allow for natural denitrification processes, providing cleaner water for downstream partners. Results from an ISU tracking project shows that CREP wetlands also attract trumpeter swans.

"There are a lot of places where all three of these things can just logically stack right on top of each other and benefit the farmer, landowner, water, soil and wildlife in a win-win all the way around,” Janke said.

Prairie strips, oxbows and riparian buffers are also practices which provide multiple benefits for soil, water, and wildlife. Restored Oxbow wetlands have been a focus of ISA’s habitat programs working with Syngenta, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nature Conservancy.  There are hundreds, if not thousands of areas adjacent to streams in Iowa where oxbow wetlands have filled with sediment or cut off from stream channels.  By excavating and establishing them they can provide combinations of aquatic and terrestrial habitat that otherwise sit idle as overgrown trees, shrubs, and invasive species.  With management they can serve as habitat for endangered species while not limiting the potential of adjacent cropland.

“It’s not enough to talk about the importance of habitat,” says Corey McKinney, ISA Field Services Program Manager. “Demonstrating success is key. It’s all about continuous improvement to preserve the land and make it better.”

5.      Protect wildlife and wildlife habitat.

Think before you plant trees, shrubs, and flowers on your farm. Choose native species to avoid being overrun by their exotic counterparts.

“In doing so creates better conditions for prairie-dependent wildlife,” Janke said.

Simple steps like keeping cats indoors to limit avian mortality and slowing down when mowing or haying can also benefit wildlife and their habitats, Janke said.