With tools provided by the Farm Bill, cover crops are helping to boost habitat for our favorite critters, while improving soil health
It’s pretty obvious that with 60 percent of land in the lower 48 states under private ownership and 45 percent of that land devoted to some form of agriculture, farmers and ranchers can have an outsize impact on fish and wildlife habitat. That’s why we spend years—from the day the ink is dry on one five-year Farm Bill and all through its tenure—advocating for and finding consensus on critical policies to boost conservation on private land in the next round of legislation.
In the coming weeks, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018-otherwise known as the farm bill. While this particular version of the bill is not likely to be signed into law, it is worth taking a look at some of the major changes the bill would make to the conservation programs on private land.
For one, the proposed House bill would double the current size of the Environmental Quality Incentive Program to $3 billion by dissolving the Conservation Stewardship Program and diverting most of the funding and features to EQIP. Of the many features of EQIP, one of the most popular is its incentives for landowners and farmers to incorporate cover crops into their planting rotation.
Cover Crops Improve Soil Health
We all know that food plots help provide food and cover to our favorite game, but cover crops are different—they are legumes, grasses, grains, and root vegetables that are typically planted after row crops like corn and soybeans are harvested. Like food plots on a much larger scale, the benefits of cover crops to soil, water, and wildlife are significant. Some benefits are obvious to farmers: If cover crops are not planted, a field might be left bare for up to seven months while waiting for the next row crop planting. And, as our nation learned during the days of the Dust Bowl, that bare soil is vulnerable to erosion caused by wind, rain, and snowmelt.
Losing healthy soil, even incrementally, is bad for business, like losing pennies on every dollar. And the problem worsens—both for landowners and for fish and wildlife habitat—when more than just soil runs off the farm in a rainstorm. Large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams, causing catastrophic algal blooms that can keep you from being able to fish.
The Critter Connection
The planting of cover crops can not only improve the farm field and our favorite lakes and streams, they can also serve as prime habitat for a variety of our favorite critters. With farmers’ interest in cover crops on the rise, an increase in EQIP funding in the next Farm Bill could mean great things for species we care about as sportsmen and women. Here are four standout cover crops and how they benefit fish and wildlife.
Walleyes, Bass, and Everything in Between
Algal blooms caused by nutrient pollution can put a damper on summertime fishing by limiting access and shortening seasons. From the Gulf of Mexico to Utah Lake, the Ohio River, and Vermont’s Lake Carmi, fish and anglers would benefit from the increased use of cover crops—like clover, radishes, winter wheat, and rye—that slow the incremental loss of nutrient-rich topsoil.
As our friends at QDMA can attest, radishes can make great food plots for whitetails. Deer are attracted to them during the fall and especially during late season when other foods are typically scarce. During the winter months, the large tap root can provide much needed energy to those post-rut bucks. The tap root also serves as a natural tiller as it drills down and breaks up compacted soil, reducing the need for a field to be heavily tilled before the primary crop is planted.
In the spring, clover and alfalfa are great sources of protein for wild turkeys, and they attract some of the bird’s favorite insects to help draw gobblers out of the hardwoods. In the late season, turkeys will appreciate the hearty meal provided by grains like winter wheat, that also help prevent soil erosion between planting seasons.
For pheasants and quail, various cover crops like clovers, rye, and brassicas can provide some nesting and brood-rearing habitat so long as they are not tilled or sprayed during the nesting/brood rearing season. Cover crops that mature in late summer and early fall as the commodity crop is growing, will also provide both forage and bugs into fall after the crop is harvested.
Learn more about Farm Bill basics and what’s at stake for sportsmen, wildlife, and access in the ongoing debate over 2018 legislation. And read the letter from 104 nonprofit groups and businesses across the hunting, fishing, conservation, food, and farming communities urging Congress not to cut Farm Bill conservation funding.