Crop Fields

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Tractor in field with cornstalk remnants
A landowner practices no-till planting on corn
stubble.  USDA NRCS

No-Till Planting System

In modern agriculture, no-till planting has replaced conventional tillage and planting as the preferred method for planting row crops. In no-till planting systems, crops are planted directly into an undisturbed seedbed with a specially designed seed drill or planter.

No-till planting:

  • Reduces soil erosion
  • Increases soil organic matter
  • Conserves moisture
  • Decreases labor costs
  • Increases use by wildlife

Residue from no-till provides both food and cover for wildlife. In particular, waste grain and weed seeds left after harvest are staple foods for wildlife in winter. If you don't want to bear the expense of owning and maintaining a no-till drill, you may be able to find custom no-till drilling services through your local USDA service center.

Crop Rotation

The practice of planting different crops in the same field from year to year is known as crop rotation. It is the opposite of continuous cropping — planting the same crop in the same field year after year. 

Experts report that continuous cropping results in higher risk for crop disease. They also note more insect problems under a continuous system, increasing the need for insecticides. Recent research indicates that insecticides are one of the prevailing factors impacting the general declining health of honeybees.

A simple corn-and-soybean crop rotation can:

  • Control associated insect pests
  • Reduce risks to valuable insect pollinators
  • Increase cropping system health
  • Increase plant diversity
  • Address specific soil deficiencies and improve soil properties

A common crop rotation is one year of corn followed by two years of beans. Diversify the rotation by adding additional crops for greater benefit. Consider including a small grain such as milo, wheat, or oats, or a legume such as red clover. 

Legumes:

  • Help prevent soil erosion 
  • Add nitrogen to the soil, reducing fertilizer requirements the following year 
  • Can provide ideal wildlife brood-rearing cover and food — if mowing or haying is delayed until after July 15.

Small grain crops such as wheat and oats:

  • Help reduce erosion
  • Provide nesting cover throughout the spring and summer
  • Make excellent brood-rearing habitat for quail and pheasants if the stubble of these crops is cut high and left undisturbed
  • Provide additional food and cover for wildlife via seeds of annual plants associated with small-grain stubble.

Your local NRCS office can help you develop a crop rotation schedule that will fit your field’s soil type, slope, and farming operation.

Cover Crops

Cover crops are grasses, small grains, legumes, or brassicas (plants like turnips and kale) that are sown immediately after or shortly before the main crop is harvested. Cover crops die before the next year’s planting, either from a winter freeze or a spring herbicide application. 

Cover crops:

  • Reduce soil erosion
  • Add fertility and organic material to the soil
  • Improve tilled-soil condition
  • Increase infiltration and aeration of the soil
  • Improve overall soil health

A traditional practice, cover crops were an integral part of the American farmer’s crop rotation through the 1950s. The availability and convenience of synthetic fertilizer has since reduced the use of cover crops and significantly altered how cropland is managed. For more information, see Organic Production: Using NRCS Practice Standards to Support Organic Growers.

If Using Cover Crops for Wildlife Habitat

  • Apply herbicides used for terminating cover crops before the start of nesting season (May 1) to decrease the chances of destroying nests. 
  • Plant a mixture of two or more cover crop species that are helpful to the kinds of wildlife you are managing for. 
  • Talk to a Private Lands Conservationist or NRCS agent for more information.

The practice of cover cropping has evolved significantly. While there are still challenges to be solved with application timing and methods, the use of cover crops shows significant benefit to the farming operation and wildlife.