Illinois Department of Natural Resources
February 2022
February 1, 2022
Photo by Jake Vancil.

Using Agriculture Practices to Benefit Wildlife

By Kathy Andrews Wright

Regenerative agriculture may be a new term but the central theme—the use of cover crops—isn’t.

A farmer drives a blue front loader tractor across an agricultural field. In the background is grassy area and trees agains a sunset.
Photo by Jake Vancil.

Dating back more than 10,000 years, cover crops were used by farmers in ancient China, India and Italy. Many of our nation’s early farmers, including George Washington, sowed their fields with cover crops. By the late 1700s, the need to counter the rapid depletion of soil nutrients, especially on poorer soils, was evident. Cover crops fell by the wayside by the middle of the 19th century as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers held promise of lowering production costs and increasing yields.

Our reliance of synthetic chemicals to enhance soil conditions and maximize crop yield, as well as the use of chemicals on lawns and in treatment plants, is now evident in the Gulf of Mexico as a large hypoxic zone. The result of excessive loads of nitrogen and phosphorous flowing down the Mississippi River from throughout the Midwest, this 4-million-acre oxygen-poor zone provides little to no habitat for fish and bottom-dwelling organisms (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2021).

Two male adult ring-necked pheasants spar in an area with tall tan grasses.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Illinois—one of the Nation’s highest density farmland states and home to some of the world’s most productive soils—is one of the 12 states within the Mississippi River watershed working to decrease nutrient runoff into the Gulf. The Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy builds on existing programs to help protect waters locally and downstream by reducing the amount of nutrients carried from Illinois soils. The Strategy calls for a 45 percent reduction in total nitrogen and total phosphorous losses from current levels, with interim reduction goals of 15 percent nitrate-nitrogen and 25 percent total phosphorus by 2025. A partner in the implementation of the Strategy, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) owns or manages agricultural parcels throughout the state that are interspersed among grasslands and woodlands. This mosaic of habitats is managed to enhance food and cover resources for white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bobwhite quail, ring-necked pheasants and other wildlife. 

“The Illinois Department of Natural Resources manages 233 agricultural leases across the state,” Mike Chandler, IDNR Agriculture, Wildlife and Habitat Lease Management Program Manager explained. The leases occur at 115 sites and cover 35,027 acres, with select sites now participating in a cover crop pilot program.

“IDNR’s cover crop pilot is part of an $8 million U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) project designed to protect working farmland, improve water quality and increase and enhance wildlife habitat,” said Bob Caveny, IDNR Office of Land Management Farm Programs Manager. “Illinois partners have pledged more than $11.2 million in matching funds, including more than $1.7 million in financial and technical assistance from IDNR where soil health practices and habitat management will be implemented on IDNR-owned and -managed lands leased for agriculture production.”

A graphic with a photo at the top depicting a farmer driving a tractor and pulling tillage equipment across an agricultural field. Trees against a partly cloudy blue sky are in the background. Below the photo is text describing requirements for regenerative agriculture practices with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Tenant farmers are responsible for much of the work on agricultural lands, operating under four-year agricultural leases with IDNR. By 2025, cover crops will be required on 25 percent of IDNR agricultural lands, with more being added annually afterwards. Tenants will receive cost share through the RCPP and IDNR to incorporate cover crops into their leases. This will be done for several years so that the farmer has a chance to learn the system. It also will allow time for the soil health to improve, reducing the amount of fertilizer or pesticide needed on the site. As leases are renewed, cover crops will be required. With IDNR’s approval, lessees may participate in USDA Farm Bill programs such as the Cover Crop Program, Conservation Stewardship Program, disaster relief and Production Flexibility Contract.

“IDNR will be collecting soil samples at the beginning and end of each farm lease,” said Caveny. “We also will be working with the University of Illinois on future metrics of soil health, such as sequestered carbon.”

Cover crops on IDNR lands usually are drilled or broadcast after harvest of the cash crop. In one area, a tenant farmer owns a helicopter service and cover crops have been aerial seeded late in the growing season. This option head-starts the cover crop and provides a mass for harvest vehicles to drive across. A third option is to interseed the fields with a high-boy rig, seeding the cover crop between rows of a standing crop.

Cover crops utilized on IDNR lands typically include plants such as cow peas, cereal rye, sunflowers, millet, wheat and clover. 

One adult male with large antlers and two adult female white-tailed deer walk across a harvested agricultural field. In the background are trees.
Photo courtesy of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“Radishes and turnips are good for soil health, aid in reducing soil compaction and white-tailed deer love to eat them,” Caveny noted. “But we learned that these aren’t viable options on public hunting sites as hunters reported they can be ankle turners.”

“It is important that all players are on the same page on management of these agricultural lands,” said Caveny. “To provide an open dialogue, a Southern Illinois Cover Crop Field Day took place at Wayne Fitzgerrell State Recreation Area (Jefferson and Franklin counties) in 2021. Discussions included cover crop strategies and water infiltration benefits, with speakers including staff from the Illinois Farm Bureau, Natural Resources Conservation Service, University of Illinois Extension and IDNR.”

The workshop was funded through an Illinois Farm Bureau Nutrient Stewardship Grant. Additional workshops will take place throughout the state in 2022. 

“As IDNR leases shift to regenerative practices it is important that we concurrently conduct research and learn not only how to maximize soil health but also how wildlife respond to the practices,” Chandler explained. Site selected for the pilot program will emphasize priority grassland bird management areas as identified in the Farmland and Prairie Campaign of the Illinois Wildlife Action Plan.

A brown, black, and white adult bob-white quail walks across a gravel road. In the background is lush green vegetation.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Mike Ward, Assistant Professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at the University of Illinois, is leading a team of researchers monitoring how bird populations utilize cover crop fields.

Explaining the initial round of research, Ward noted “We have found that both no-till practices and the use of cover crops benefit bird populations. We found many more bird nests in no-till fields and while nesting success was not great, the amount of no-till fields in Illinois likely lead to approximately 750,000 more nests than would be attempted in traditionally tilled fields. We also found that cover crop fields are used by many birds in the spring. Because much of the landscape is devoid of cover, the addition of cover crops, such as cereal rye, can improve the shelter and food resources of an area.”

Researchers observed 52 species of birds within the cover crop fields with red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and American robins the most commonly occurring species.

Ward’s team continues to monitor cover crop fields to gain an understanding of how the termination date of the cover crops and locations within Illinois impacts bird populations. 

A blackbird with red shoulders flies across a green field.
Photo by Ryan Moehring, USFWS.

“The next step in our investigation is to determine if birds can successfully reproduce in these fields,” Ward explained. 

Large-scale conservation of wildlife management can’t be achieved in Illinois without integrating agriculture in the plan. Illinois partners are now working to investigate ways to promote practices that benefit wildlife, soil and water and do not impact a farmer’s bottom line.

“Our goal is to develop sites where people can see profitable production agriculture that is wildlife and environmentally friendly,” Caveny concluded. “Areas where neighbors see and talk to neighbors about the use of cover crops, and work in concert toward a sustainable Illinois.”

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Wildlife Journal and Illinois Audubon magazine.