By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services
Cover crops provide many species of wildlife with food and shelter. If you want to maximize wildlife benefits, avoid cover crop monocultures. Cover crop diversity and interspersion are keys to improving wildlife habitat. For birds like quail and pheasant; nesting, brood-rearing, and escape cover are critical for bird survival, and these three types of cover need to be within 40 yards of each other for best interspersion (Zac Eddy, Senior Wildlife Biologist).
For birds, high energy grain cover crops provide food and shelter (structural cover). Good bird cover crops should include warm season forage species planted after wheat harvest. Sorghum species can grow 6-9 feet tall and they lodge in the winter, providing excellent cover and food for quail, pheasant, and rabbits; even under heavy snow and ice. Warm-season cover crops like sorghums, millets, sunflowers and warm-season legumes such as cowpeas and Sunn hemp can be planted. Sorghums, millets and sunflowers are excellent seed producers for birds, and deer like to eat cowpeas and sunn hemp and they also provide excellent shelter during summer months. Cool-season cereal grains like cereal rye, oats, triticale, and wheat with legumes such as peas, clovers and vetches can be planted. Most of these plants provide food for deer and can also provide food and possibly shelter for bird species during adverse winter weather (Zak Eddy).
Rye, triticale, and wheat provide nesting habitat if allowed to grow over 14 inches tall before termination. Cover cropped fields can provide brood-rearing habitat for foraging chicks. Adding cover crop species and diversity will also increase insect numbers and insect diversity. This is great for young birds that require insects as their main food source in the spring. Well-fed birds with higher body weights also produce healthier eggs and chicks in the spring.
Will Moseley, Wildlife and Fisheries Consultant says “Deer need more tender, less lignified plant material. Deer are very selective feeders and eat what is palatable. Deer eat the newest growth from a plant as it is not lignified.” Deer consume over 200 native plants but field crops now commonly make up 50% of their diet. Deer food plots or cover crops with lots of diversity generally have something for deer to eat which is highly palatable. Deer only eat the tips of grasses in the spring with the first flush of growth in the spring. Deer prefer high nitrogen or protein food sources such as legumes and clovers such as soybeans, vetches, cowpeas, winter peas, and Sunn Hemp. “The best plant for deer is the one that is at a point in its life cycle where its the most palatable and gives deer what they need at a given time of the growing season, not a particular species” (Will Mosely). Cover crops may take some pressure off of animals grazing wheat or alfalfa. Planting many different cover crop species that mimic the tall grass prairie offer provides many benefits to all wildlife species, including bees and beneficial insects.
Serious deer hunters should try to make forage available all year. Spring cover crops for deer should include two legumes, field peas and soybeans but can also include sunflowers, buckwheat, African cabbage, rape, chicory. Grasses might include sorghum, millet or oats. Cool season fall cover crop mixes should include plants that freeze and some that stay green till spring and start to grow in the warm days of April. Some other good plants to consider are: awnless wheat, rye, triticale, crimson clover, oats, tillage radish, kale, collards, and winter peas. If there is snow cover to insulate the ground, these plants will provide forage into and through the winter and green up in very early in spring.
Planting cover crops may also change the way hunters search for deer. Tall growing cover crops provide shelter and a place to hide. If food is readily available, many deer will lie low in the cover crop to hide from human predators. When they get hungry, they can simply reach over and grab a snack. Several years ago, a hunter bagged a trophy buck which he practically walked over because the deer were content to lie around rather than trying to outrun groups of hunters. In January and February, deer tend to congregate in large numbers to get the last females bred before spring. Large cover crop fields supply both winter food and shelter for deer and many other types of wildlife.