Improving Soil Health and Wildlife Habitat

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Gadwall nest in fall-seeded cereal rye initiated after planting soybeans in June.

Soil health practices have become increasingly popular among producers across North and South Dakota, and Ducks Unlimited is seeking opportunities to develop associated wildlife benefits and provide financial assistance to interested farmers. By incorporating more diversified crop rotations, reducing tillage, and incorporating cover crops, producers can improve soil structure, improve water infiltration and storage, increase organic matter, and increase microbial diversity in their soil. These practices provide economic benefits to farmers by increasing nutrient and water availability to plants and reducing fertilizer loss. They also improve adjacent aquatic habitat by reducing runoff and sedimentation in wetlands and providing other benefits to wildlife.

"We're particularly interested in the use of spring-emerging cover crops like cereal rye. Not only because of the benefits they provide to soil and water, but they can also potentially provide nesting cover to upland nesting birds in areas currently lacking availability," says Steve Donovan, DU's Manager of Conservation Programs in South Dakota.

In the fall of 2016, DU provided cost-share assistance to 28 producers across eastern South Dakota to incorporate cover crops including cereal rye into their cropping rotation. These sites and others provided opportunities to search for duck nests in cropland during the 2017 nesting season. Cooperating with South Dakota State University (SDSU), and South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, DU staff initiated a pilot-year project to obtain data pertaining to nest survival in cover crops with associated no-till farming practices. Data obtained in 2017 will assist in the design of a master's student's research project at SDSU to be implemented in 2018-2019. The project seeks to gain insight on whether duck production in cover crops is beneficial or detrimental to overall population growth. Thus far, nests have been found from mallard, northern pintail, northern shoveler, blue-winged teal, gadwall, ring-necked pheasant and marbled godwit, indicating potential to attract a wide range of species.

One of the sites searched in 2017 belonged to Dennis Fagerland, a mixed operator in Marshall County, who has become a firm believer in the use of cover crops. "My primary goal is improving soil health, so we plan to use cover crops on 25 percent of our farmed acres annually," Fagerland said. "I was impressed with the cereal rye this year, as I was able to graze the cover crops last fall after corn harvest, and again this spring, and still had tremendous growth through the month of May prior to planting soybeans."

As soybeans approached four inches of height in late June, the rye grass still provided up to two feet of vegetative cover that could attract grassland nesting birds during the primary nesting season.

Integrating livestock on cropland in conjunction with cover crops can expedite the soil building process and provide additional grazing opportunities for producers.In North Dakota, DU recently secured funding through the Outdoor Heritage Fund to provide additional financial assistance to producers in the southeast part of the state. The Cover Crop & Livestock Integration Project is designed to help producers develop the infrastructure needed to incorporate fall grazing into crop production in conjunction with cover crops.

According to Jonas Davis, DU's Manager of Conservation Programs in ND, "This program will not only increase cover crop utilization in the project area, but will also enhance the quality of adjacent grasslands by shifting late-season grazing pressures to alternative forage. This is a win-win for mixed operators and grassland-dependent species in a critical portion of the Prairie Pothole Region."

For more information on DU's programs in North and South Dakota, contact Jonas Davis at jdavis@ducks.org, or Steve Donovan at sdonovan@ducks.org.