Good Land Management is Good Wildlife Management
During one of my walks this autumn, a blue heron surprised me as it rose like a phantom from a deep streambed. The wonder of the sight stayed with me for days. Keeping wildlife on farms is not easy. People who make the commitment to do so usually consider themselves richly rewarded with the company of the wild creatures.
A more tangible benefit of managing a farm for wildlife is that production practices which encourage wildlife almost always help to reduce agricultural pollution too. Sometimes the wild flora and fauna can even be used as a measure of the farm's environmental health.
Management which increases the diversity of crops and other vegetation on a farm will entice wildlife to live on the farm. Many wild animals' needs for food, shelter, and water can be adequately met if the animals have access to several different plant communities in a fairly small area.
Crop acreage does not need to be reduced very much - just rearranged. Strip-cropping legumes and small grains with row crops is a good way to establish patchworks of vegetation which will foster wildlife. Strip-cropping also curtails wind and water erosion.
Grass turn-rows, waterways, covered terraces, and wide fencerows provide shelter for nesting birds and diversity of habitat, while reducing erosion and runoff. Fencerows established with the needs of wildlife in mind should be 25 to 50 feet wide. Plant a few shrubs and trees in fencerows.
Windbreaks with plenty of undergrowth make good homes for wildlife. Try to plant several species of understory shrubs which bear fruits or berries. Windbreaks also reduce wind erosion and wind damage to crops, so crop yields are increased.
Weed and pest control in cropland does become more challenging if you are trying to encourage wildlife on the farm. Conservation tillage maintains residue cover which is beneficial for wildlife and reduces erosion, but more herbicides may be needed with conservation tillage. Consider banding herbicides in the row rather than broadcasting.
Insecticides, particularly organophosphates, can be very hazardous for wild animals and people. Aerial application is usually more dangerous for wildlife than ground application. Granular materials are often highly toxic and must be incorporated into the soil immediately.
Of course, great care should be taken with any pesticide to ensure that the chemical reaches only the target area. This includes treated seed, which can be toxic to wildlife. Clean up seed spills right away.
Sometimes the wildlife itself causes damage - why did Noah put those pocket gophers on the Ark anyway! You can't shoot them all, and poison is a pollution hazard. Sprinkle several bushels of old cracked corn around field edges. The gophers will eat food that is easy to get, and leave planted seeds alone.
Farm ponds furnish habitat for wildlife. Around ponds, plant mixed grass-legume swards for food and shelter, and to filter silt or chemicals out of runoff water. Also, keep cattle and sheep out of ponds; clean water is good for them as well as for fish and wildlife.
Making your farm a comfortable home for wildlife requires lots of thought and perhaps some adjustment of farming practices. But not only will the birds and foxes appreciate your efforts, so will your downstream neighbors.
This article covers only some general management suggestions which will encourage wildlife while diminishing agricultural pollution. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, UNL wildlife specialists, and the Nebraska Wildlife Federation can provide more in-depth information about the specific needs of different wildlife species.
McClain, C., et al. 1991. Croplands. NEBRASKAland Magazine 69(1):24-35.
Johnson, R.J., and C.W. Wolfe. 1994. Backyard wildlife - planting for habitat. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension NebGuide G84-671-A.