Winter Cereal: Habitat Benefits
Winter cereal grains, such as wheat and rye, can offer an alternative option for producers seeking to improve bird nesting habitat on cropland within their operations. Although they cannot replace the higher quality habitat provided by perennial grass stands, a study by South Dakota State University researchers found that winter wheat can provide favorable surrogate nesting and brood-rearing habitat for pheasants compared to other annual crops, particularly in areas of the state dominated by row crop production (Pauly 2014). Fall-planted winter cereals provide early, dense cover important to ground nesting birds. Nest depredation will likely be lower in large blocks of winter wheat than in narrow buffer strips around wetlands or along fencelines because predators can more efficiently search those small strips. Additionally, the minimal disturbance during the primary nesting season serves to improve nest success over spring planted crops. No-till techniques can further increase the benefits to wildlife by increasing food availability and surface residue.
Winter cereals can also benefit the producer in several ways. Including a new crop can diversify an operation’s income stream. Operations may be less vulnerable to drought because fall-planted crops can take advantage of fall and early spring moisture that is not available to spring-planted crops. Similarly, winter cereals can provide a backup forage resource for livestock when drought conditions do occur. Including these crops in the rotation can improve soil health by increasing ground cover during winter and early spring to trap snow and reduce erosion, and improve soil structure and water infiltration from root growth.
Winter cereals are typically planted between mid-September and mid-October in South Dakota. Later plantings can be successful, particularly for rye, although the likelihood of winter-kill increases and yield may decrease. To maximize benefits to nesting wildlife, these crops should be harvested for grain, rather than hayed. Producers should consider how winter cereals fit into their operation in terms of economics, crop diversity, nutrient management, insurance, and the annual production cycle. Many resources are available to assist producers with these considerations including SDSU Extension, NRCS, SD Game, Fish, and Parks and other agricultural and conservation organizations.
Reference: Pauly, B.J. 2014. Reproductive ecology of ring-necked pheasants in central South Dakota’s winter wheat landscape. MS Thesis, South Dakota State University.