Feed your soil, livestock and pheasants with season-long cover crops

Ben Lardy
Pheasants Forever biologist

Sunflowers, millet, radishes, flax and even a little buckwheat are just a handful of cover crop species that are growing on the Ristau Farm west of Warner, S.D. This spring, Dave Ristau and his brother Jim felt that production on their cropland had plateaued due to a lack of biological activity in their soils. Their solution? A 30-species blend of cover crops planted this summer to feed the soil while providing additional forage for their livestock.

Recently, after taking a quick walk through the jungle of cover, it was clear that nature was responding. We saw dozens of pollinator species visiting blossoms from radishes, sunflowers and vetch, while a variety of insects were crawling in the understory.

The broadleaf cover crops that provide food for insects above ground also provide important habitat for below-ground microorganisms. One of the most important, mycorrhizal fungi, creates a symbiotic relationship with many crop species. Although it cannot be seen with the naked eye, the fungi is a critical component of healthy soils by making nutrients available to plant roots. The network of fungi being built this year with the cover crop will aid next year’s cash crop with more efficient nutrient uptake.

Although the Ristaus are farmers first, they’re also avid pheasant hunters. It’s no coincidence that the season-long cover crop also provides 60 acres of prime bird habitat come fall. Even better, the open understory and dense canopy provides ideal brood-rearing habitat for pheasant chicks. Many of the grain species are already putting on seed heads that will provide a food source well into the fall.

As the Ristaus graze their cattle through the cover crop, they are resting pastures that will provide nesting habitat the following spring. The system provides several benefits to resident wildlife, starting in the nesting season all the way into winter.

There aren’t many situations where an agricultural practice can benefit pollinators, pheasants, soil health and future cash crops all in the same field. As a wildlife biologist it’s difficult to not get excited about the expanded use of season-long covers across the state, and they remain an intriguing option for producers who feel their soil may be stuck in a rut.