Published Jul 7, 2023

Restoring Habitat on Farms

By Vanya North

When the first Europeans started settling in the land that would one day be called the state of Iowa, they encountered a rolling landscape dominated by a sea of tallgrass prairie and islands of woodlands.

Named for the Ioway – one of many Indigenous Peoples who had lived in and shaped the area for thousands of years – the land beckoned to the newcomers, who sought to build their prosperity from the land’s abundant wildlife, lush greenery and rich soils.

“Up until 150 years ago, Iowa was about 80% tallgrass prairie and supported a wide array of wildlife, some of whom are still here with us, and some that are not,” says Ryan Schmidt, the central Iowa land stewardship director for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.

Adam Janke

Adam Janke

Today, however, more than 85% of Iowa’s land area is farmed, while only a fraction of a percent remains of the original prairie. With such dramatic ecological changes, how have Iowa’s native species survived in such an altered landscape?

Adam Janke, a wildlife specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, says historical farming practices, where diverse crop rotations and pastures were common, and where weedy or shrubby areas were left intact, created spaces where wildlife could find food and shelter.

“We’ve gone from a diversity of crops to just a few crops . . . and that has coincided with population declines in farmland wildlife.”

– Adam Janke

“Because we had weedy areas where we grew chickens, or where we raised a single cow or small herd of cattle – or because we had fallow fields or diverse crop rotations – we found that generalist farmland wildlife species were able to exist on the margins of our farms quite well,” he says. “And they essentially set the soundtrack for Iowa’s rural environments.”

In the past few decades, however, this pastiche of on-farm diversity has measurably decreased. It’s not the expansion of production agriculture that’s the main culprit, Adam says, but rather the widespread shift to a two-crop system. “We’ve gone from a diversity of crops to just a few crops,” he says. “We’ve seen intensification and homogenization, and that has coincided with population declines in farmland wildlife, broadly defined.”

Removing Invasives to Restore Habitat

First-generation farmer Cait Caughey is working to restore some of that landscape diversity at Mullein Hill Farm, the diverse 25-acre farm she operates in Mondamin, Iowa. While some portions of the farm are kept in row crops, Cait specializes in flowers, native seed mixes, field vegetables and herbs. She has been farming since 2010 and says it’s her love of nature and wildlife that brought her to farming.

Cait Caughey and family collect native seeds in Loess Hills.

Cait Caughey (center) and her son, Catalpa, and daughter, Mira (behind Cait), at a native seed collection event near their home in the Loess Hills. Photo courtesy of Cait Caughey.

“My dad was in parks and recreation, and we spent a lot of time outdoors,” Cait says. “Those foundational childhood moments really impacted me and gave me the mindset of coming back to the soil and working with land.”

That love of wildlife has translated into a range of efforts to create wildlife habitat on her farm, such as removing invasive species. With support from the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and her local Natural Resources Conservation Service office, Cait began using prescribed burning to remove invasive species. She also created a forestry plan aimed at increasing habitat for larger wildlife species, such as owls, foxes, deer and nesting birds. “We removed so many cedar trees,” Cait says. “It started with me obsessively cataloging plants and thinking, wow, this is amazing, there’s something really special here.”

During restoration, Cait was ecstatic to discover that, apart from the invasive cedar, most of the grasses on her acreage were native. Many plants, such as purple coneflower and partridge pea, have been part of the native prairie ecosystem for thousands of years. Spurred on by these finds, Cait began restoring another 5-acre remnant prairie using the seeds from her discovery. “I’m proud of this restoration work, and I hope to do more acres in the future.”

But, she adds, there are other ways to create habitat. “We’re also focusing on the small areas, like around our barn, and the bases of trees that can serve as habitat.”

Preserving Microhabitaton Farms

Marlene Ehrsman

Marlene Ehresman

Marlene Ehresman, cofounder and executive director of the Iowa Wildlife Center in Ames, Iowa, agrees. “Habitat restoration is great, and I say the more native habitat, the better. But there are lots of things landowners and operators can and are doing that create suitable spaces for wildlife. One of those is focusing on micro areas of the farm.”

Fencerows are one such area. Ground-nesting birds will use them for nesting, she says, while rabbits and skunks may use them like highways to hide from aerial predators when moving from one field to the next. Small rodents may find seed and food sources in the growth around fencerows, enticing foxes to patrol there in pursuit of the rodents. In essence, Marlene says, these untidy fencerows become mini ecosystems.

“Farmers who find cleaning up their fencerows to be tedious may find joy in discovering that leaving messy fence lines in place is, in fact, creating space for wildlife,” Marlene says. She encourages farmers to consider leaving clumps of grass alongside the barn or cattle feeder, and resisting raking leaf piles in the yard. “That all provides microhabitat. Brush piles are another gold mine for wildlife, since they act as shelter and a quiet place.”

“Farmers who find cleaning up their fencerows to be tedious may find joy in discovering that leaving messy fence lines in place is, in fact, creating space for wildlife.”
– Marlene Ehresman

Diversifying at Bigger Scales

Farmers also have opportunities to restore on-farm diversity at a broader scale, using practices that can work with their existing farming enterprises – and that can make their farms more resilient. Some of these mutually beneficial efforts include practices like planting prairie strips, installing wetlands in less productive field areas, adding small-grain crops like oats and wheat to diversify crop rotations and planting cover crops – which the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative says can provide valuable habitat for insects, pollinators and other wildlife.

Purple coneflowers

Efforts like this are vital for Iowa’s native species to rebound and even thrive. Adam points to the value of prairie strips, which ISU’s long-running prairie strips project has shown to have many benefits with a relatively small footprint in crop fields. “Many species of greatest conservation need – like grasshopper sparrows, dickcissel, common yellowthroat, brown thrasher, Eastern kingbird, field sparrow and Eastern meadowlark – are using prairie strips for their reproduction,” he says.

These practices aren’t at odds with production agriculture either. Echoing Adam’s comment about how crop diversity creates spaces for wildlife, a 2019 U.S. Geological Survey report – “The Effects of Management Practices on Grassland Birds” – notes how meadowlark abundance in Iowa “was positively correlated with large amounts of pasture, alfalfa hayland and herbaceous fencerow in the surrounding landscape and with moderate amounts of row crops.”

Pasture used to be common on Iowa farms when most farmers had livestock – and bringing livestock back can benefit farmers, and wildlife, in many ways. Rotationally grazing them can further benefit farmers, livestock and wildlife. “Many farmers are already using this practice to allow grazing grasses to recover,” Marlene says. “It’s just one more habitat-friendly practice that preserves that bit of the natural and original landscape.”

Ultimately, she says, restoring habitat on Iowa farms “comes down to knowing the natural history of that animal, and appreciating what they can do for your farm – and what your farm can do for them.”