Farm and Field

FARM & FIELD: Cover crops provide 'bed and breakfast' for migrating birds

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Nov. 26, 2017 12:01 am

Need another reason for planting cover crops? University of Illinois research shows that migratory birds prefer to rest and refuel in fields with cover crops.

"We think cover crops, such as cereal rye, likely provide migrating birds with more vegetation and a safe area to escape from the elements and from predators," said Cassandra Wilcoxen, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. "Cover crops also increase insect abundance, another food source for birds. The increased number of insects allows migrants to fuel up faster and move on to their breeding grounds."

Fields with cover crops are not going to replace natural habitats, but in early spring, there can be miles of fields with little vegetation. The advent of cover crops provides a potentially important habitat for birds returning to the Midwest from areas as far south as Argentina.

Corn fields with a cover crop, especially cereal rye, was the favorite over two planting seasons likely because there is more residue on the fields to provide more cover for birds.

"Grassland birds prefer large, open areas: the bigger the better," Wilcoxen said. "Agricultural fields are huge, so the cover crops provide a large habitat where birds can rest, forage and potentially even nest."

The only downside may be in the timing for planting and terminating cover crops.

"Some grassland birds nest in the spring, so in order to give birds the time they need, farmers may need to hold off terminating their cover crop. Those are the sorts of recommendations that will require more research," Wilcoxen said. "It's true of any new farming practice. You have to play around with it to get it right."

Ag census

University of Missouri Extension economists urge farmers to complete the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2017 Census of Agriculture.

The census should arrive in farmers' mailboxes in December and can be returned by mail or securely submitted online.

Ryan Milhollin with MU said federal, state and local governments as well as agribusinesses, researchers, trade associations and others use the data to serve farmers and rural communities.

USDA conducts the survey every five years. It is the only source of uniform, comprehensive and impartial data for every county in the U.S., he said.

Law requires response to the census. Otherwise, USDA continues to follow up with mailed questionnaires, phone calls or visits from an enumerator.

Milhollin said information from the Census of Agriculture shapes programs, including MU Extension programs, that benefit many farm groups. The census gives a picture of the economic impact of agriculture in the country.

It helps policymakers see emerging trends such as young and beginning farmers and ranchers; women, veteran and minority farmers and ranchers; specialty crops and organic product. This helps legislators make decisions that protect the future of agriculture, Milhollin said.

More information is available online at

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