Managing Pasture and Hay for Wildlife

Iowa's pasture and hay ground, when managed appropriately, provides ideal habitat to mimic the historical expanses of grasslands that once covered the state.  Wildlife species have different needs when it comes to grasslands, but generally they all benefit from diverse stands of native prairie vegetation that are not disturbed during their primary nesting season from May to early July.  

Here's a few pointers and resources on ways to promote quality wildlife habitat in your pasture or hay ground. 

bird on fenceDelay mowing to July 15th wherever possible, and ideally until August 1st.  This allows sufficient time for birds to hatch their nests and for other young critters, like deer fawns, to be mobile enough to escape equipment in the fields.  

When mowing earlier in the year consider these recommendations:

  1. Mow slowly and look ahead for wildlife that are slow to get away.
  2. Avoid mowing in the dark when birds are most likely to be on the nest and least likely to flush.
  3. Use a flushing bar (a bar in front of the mower, as wide as the deck, with dangling chains to encourage things to flush).
  4. Start cuttings from the middle of the field out, leaving some cover for wildlife along the field margins near woodlots, fence rows, or other natural areas.  

Promote diversity in grazed systems

An ideal grazed system for wildlife is rich in plant species diversity as well as diversity of management treatments, like grazing, haying, and prescribed fire. Native warm season grasses like big bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass are generally more favorable for wildlife in grazed systems and can provide a strong forage base. The article Warm Season Grasses for Hay and Pasture describes common warm season grasses used for hay and pasture. The University of Wisconsin has a nice article about creating bird habitat in rotational grazing systems. Learn more about the multiple benefits of prairies on farms in the article titled Incoporating Prairies in Multifunctional Landscapes. The Pasture Management Guide for Livestock Producers booklet published by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach details additional approaches to create wildlife habitat in pasture systems, as well as resources for protecting and enhancing water quality in a production system.

Employ prescribed fire to promote diversity and forage quality

Using prescribed fire in concert with grazing can also be a highly effective means of increasing the quality of pasture for wildlife. Fire in Grazing Management: Patch-Burn Grazing is a detailed article that provides a summary of the patch-burn grazing method and results of research from southern Iowa.  If you are interested in using prescribed fire on your property, use the 5-part series on planning and implementing prescribed fire listed on this page or visit the UKNOW YouTube Channel for a series of videos on how to safely conduct prescribed fire in Iowa.