Cover Crop Mixes for Wildlife Habitat and Biodiversity

On September 13, 2023, ICCON was joined by Tyson Seirer from STAR Seed, an independent seed supplier based in Osborne, Kansas. Tyson helps growers access the unique seed resources at Star Seed Inc., including custom native grass mixes, CRP, wetlands, and wildlife planting such as pollinator, cover crops, and food plots. He has previous experience with the USFWS, Kansas Dept. Wildlife and Parks, and as a farm bill biologist at Pheasants Forever, where he evaluated private lands and cropping systems to help growers improve habitat for wildlife. Tyson focused his presentation on cover crop mixes for wildlife habitat and biodiversity. He touched on the types of structures to look for when creating a mix, how cover crops can create habitat to support hunting, additional foraging opportunities provided by the covers, and common challenges faced by farmers using cover crops.

To effectively enhance wildlife habitat, Tyson emphasized that cover crop mixes must be diverse. Pollinators, bees, nesting birds, and a variety of animals can use cover crops as habitat. It is key to incorporate a diversity of plant species, such as warm or cool season grasses, legumes, and broadleaves. This type of mix offers nesting and brooding habitat, food sources, and year-round shelter. Referencing the Cover Crop Chart developed by the USDA to identify individual species, Tyson shared two specific mixes, developed by STAR seed, that are great options for nesting / brooding: Chick Magnet and GreenField. Chick Magnet includes turnip, pea, sweet clover, cowpea, buckwheat, and sunflower. This mix takes into consideration the need for overhead canopy for chicks and aims to attract insects for chicks to feed on. GreenField builds on Chick Magnet but is tailored for later brooding and winter cover. The mix includes additions such as mung bean, pearl millet, and Sudan grass. These additions give more height and structure, provide a food source through the winter, and create a food source for birds who may make this field a home later in the season.

The USDA Cover Crop Chart includes information on 70 cover crops and serves as a decision aid to help select and manage cover crops.

Tyson also discussed the hunting opportunities and increased forage opportunities that are available by the strategic use and management of cover crops. The establishment of diverse cover crop mixes can attract additional wildlife and game while providing winter food. This system creates huntable acres and leads to improved hunting experiences. This also allows for the land to continue to be productive throughout the winter while it would otherwise be fallow. Regarding livestock forage, Tyson discussed a dual purpose that could be implemented when utilizing a paddock grazing system. In a paddock grazing rotation, forage provides additional shelter to grassland birds as long as the management allows a farmer to “save some portions for them.” This is another example of how these types of land stewardship practices work together to provide multiple benefits.

Tyson described the ideal elements for a cover crop mix to support over summer brooding habitat – high canopy and 40-50% bare ground underneath.

Tyson closed his presentation discussing common challenges with cover crops for wildlife habitat. Particularly, moisture is a challenge to establish cover crops and allow for significant growth especially in drought times. For this reason, cover crop species chosen for Chick Magnet and GreenField are suitable for low- to medium moisture. Drill calibration is another challenge Tyson recognized because of different seed sizes. To address this challenge, STAR Seed has created a YouTube video to go through drill calibration methods and questions. For farmers in Illinois, timing is particularly tricky when looking to lay down a nesting / brooding cover as the window might be too short for establishment of the cover crop. Tyson mentioned in Kansas, winter cover is seeded in August / September following beans or corn however, for Illinois farmers, it may take working with both in-field and edge of field practices to achieve habitat that is suitable for nesting / brooding.

Tyson’s full presentation can be viewed on ISAP’s YouTube channel. ICCON will not be hosting a call in October, and wishes everyone a happy harvest (and cover crop planting) season. Monthly ICCON calls will resume in November, and you can register for our calls here.  If you are interested in joining the Illinois Cover Crop On-Farm Network to learn about new research and hear from cover crop specialists across the Midwest, please join our google group by sending an email to 

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ISAP Coordinator