Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk


Although Pastures are primarily managed to maximize economic returns and forage production for domestic livestock, they also serve as important surrogate grassland habitats for wildlife. Their plant community typically consists of high-quality forage species, including warm-or cool-season grasses, legumes, and other forbs. Grasses can constitute up to 90% of a pasture’s vegetative cover, but plant composition is influenced by climate, land use history, and soil and moisture conditions at a particular site (Ochterski 2005). For example, some pastures also contain scattered trees such as Burr oak as well as invasive plants such as thistles, crown-vetch, spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, bird’s-foot trefoil, Queen Anne’s lace, and multiflora rose (Renfrew and Ribic 2002, Renfrew et al. 2005).

For the purpose of this summary, we consider only pastures that have been planted. Pastures planted to native warm-season grasses such as big blue-stem, yellow Indian grass, and switchgrass are very tolerant of droughty soils and provide excellent forage for livestock in mid- to late-summer (Ryan 1986, Undersander et al. 2002). Most warm-season grasses create thicker ground cover and excellent vertical cover compared to introduced cool-season grasses. Warm-season pastures also stand up well over winter unlike introduced cool-season grasses that may become matted and result in poor residual cover in spring (Ryan 1986). Non-native cool-season grasses are easy to establish and provide cover earlier in the season than warm-season grasses (Undersander et al. 2002). Dominant cool-season pasture mixes include orchard grass, Kentucky bluegrass, quackgrass, timothy, fescue, smooth brome, and reed canary grass. Most cool-season pastures have a substantial legume component and may include red clover, white clover, and alfalfa.

Historical and Present-day Context and Distribution

During the nineteenth century, diverse prairie communities in Wisconsin were largely eliminated in favor of small grains, grass hay, and permanent pastures. Although these changes destroyed or significantly altered most native grasslands, the landscape remained largely rural with small farmsteads interspersed with idled or undeveloped lands. Many species adapted to these changes and used the diversified, small-scale farms as surrogate grassland habitats (Warner 1994). By the mid-twentieth century, however, urban development increased and large farming operations began to displace the more rural land-use patterns (Sample and Mossman 1997, Sample et al. 2003, WDNR 2005). The widespread replacement of pastures with intensively-managed row crops resulted in less useable agricultural habitat across the region (Sample and Mossman 1997). Over the last 50 years, combined pasture and hayfield acreage has declined by more than 50% in the Midwest and is now at its lowest level in more than 100 years (Herkert et al. 1996). Despite these declines, grass-dominated pastures are estimated to cover 314,600 hectares in Wisconsin and thus remain a dominant grassland type in the state (Renfrew and Ribic 2002, USDA 2002). Pastures occur in every Wisconsin ecological landscape but are most concentrated in the following: Southwest Savanna, Western Coulee and Ridges, and Western Prairie (Sample and Mossman 1997).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Although livestock grazing is the primary source of disturbance within pastures, its effects vary tremendously depending on pasturing techniques. For example, pastures that are continuously grazed are closely cropped by cattle and thus provide short, sparse grassland habitat (Temple et al. 1999). Rotational grazing promotes uneven use of forage because only one section of a pasture is grazed at a time while the remaining sections “rest.”  This increases patchiness of a pasture and thus provides a more diverse vegetative structure than continuous grazing (Ryan 1986, Undersander et al. 2000). Deferred grazing can result in even higher structural complexity and, if undisturbed during the breeding season, can provide a refuge area for nesting birds (Temple et al. 1999, Undersander et al. 2000). Grazing pressure (i.e., head/hectare and head/day) also influences the level of disturbance within a pasture (Sample and Mossman 1997, Ochterski 2005). High stocking rates can result in heavily disturbed pastures and very short vegetation of poor forage quality (Ryan 1986, Undersander et al. 2000, 2002). Light to moderately grazed pastures experience less disturbance and often maintain quality forage for livestock as well as provide cover for many grassland birds (Sample and Mossman 1997).

A significant threat to pasture habitats is the intensification of agricultural practices. Confinement dairy farming has led to a reduction in use of pastures and an increased reliance on grain feed. As a result, large acreages of pastures are being converted to intensively-managed row crops that have low wildlife value (Sample and Mossman 1997). Renewed interest in corn ethanol and other market factors have led to high corn prices, creating additional pressure on remaining pasture, hay, and CRP acres (Murray and Best 2003, Roth et al. 2005, Bies 2006). Urban sprawl is another significant threat. As housing developments replace farmland throughout the state, pastures are either destroyed or increasingly isolated from other grassland areas.  

Related WBCI Habitats: Idle Warm-season Grasses and Forbs, Idle Cool-season Grasses and Forbs, Fallow Field.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

Pastures are a dominant grassland type in the state and a valuable habitat for grassland bird populations. They can support diverse assemblages of grassland birds, including priority species such as Sedge Wren, Dickcissel, Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark. However, grazing intensity and frequency will strongly influence which grassland bird species are present. Tall, dense cover within some lightly grazed pastures may deter some nest predators and facilitate higher productivity for nesting species such as Ring-necked Pheasant, Sedge Wren, Henslows’s Sparrow, and Red-winged Blackbird (Ryan 1986, Sample and Mossman 1997, Temple 1999, Renfrew et al. 2005). When grazing pressure is increased to moderate, most tallgrass species are eliminated and midgrass species are favored, including Savannah Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Dickcissel (Sample and Mossman 1997). Long-term moderate grazing can increase vegetative heterogeneity and cover of some forbs and thereby create the patchiness preferred by many grassland birds (Ryan 1986, Klute et al. 1997). Heavily grazed pastures favor sparse-cover specialists such as Killdeer, Upland Sandpiper, Horned Lark, Vesper Sparrow, and Western Meadowlark. However, a high stocking rate in conjunction with a continuous grazing system will likely reduce the productivity of those species attempting to nest (Herkert et al. 1996, Temple et al. 1999). Temple et al. (1999) suggested that many nests in grazed pastures were lost to cattle trampling and nest desertion after cattle had grazed down the vegetation surrounding the nest.

Landscape context also influences how birds may use pasture habitats. Lightly grazed pastures adjacent to hayfields or other disturbed lands can provide a refuge for second nest attempts or dispersing fledglings (Sample and Mossman 1997). Also, pastures located in close proximity to other extensive grassland areas increase the overall size and heterogeneity of the surrounding landscape and thus improve conditions for species requiring large grassland patches. Area-sensitive species such as Northern Harrier, Short-eared Owl, and Upland Sandpiper use pastures embedded within high-grassland landscapes for nesting, foraging, and/or roosting (Sample and Mossman 1997, Herkert et al. 1999). Other species such as Northern Bobwhite and Ring-necked Pheasant rely on the residual cover of lightly to moderately grazed pastures during winter months, emphasizing the importance of these habitats at all times of the annual cycle (Walk 1998, Brennan 1999).

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Mallard b If appropriate open water for breeding pairs and broods is available nearby.
Blue-winged Teal b If appropriate open water for breeding pairs and broods is available nearby.
Greater Prairie-Chicken b, w May occur in lightly grazed pastures surrounding core protected areas in central Wisconsin.
Northern Bobwhite b, w Requires brushy areas adjacent to pasture.
Northern Harrier b, m May occur in pastures embedded within a large, grassland-dominated area.
Upland Sandpiper B, M Specialist; occurs in moderately to heavily grazed pastures, especially when embedded in a large, grassland-dominated area.
Barn Owl f Very rare resident in southern and central Wisconsin.
Short-eared Owl b, m, w May occur in pastures embedded within a large, grassland-dominated area.
Willow Flycatcher b, m Requires a shrub component.
Sedge Wren b, m Prefers lightly grazed pastures with dense herbaceous cover and a substantial component of residual vegetation.
Loggerhead Shrike b, m Very rare breeder in Wisconsin. Requires a shrub component.
Bell’s Vireo b, m Requires a shrub component.
Brown Thrasher b, m Requires a shrub component.
Common Yellowthroat b, m Prefers lightly grazed pastures with dense herbaceous cover and/or a shrub component.
Clay-colored Sparrow b, m Requires a shrub component.
Field Sparrow b, m Requires a shrub component.
Vesper Sparrow b, m Prefers heavily grazed pastures.
Grasshopper Sparrow B, M Prefers moderately grazed pastures, especially those with patchy structure.
Henslow’s Sparrow b, m Prefers lightly grazed pastures with dense herbaceous cover and a substantial component of residual vegetation.
Dickcissel b, m Prefers lightly grazed pastures with adequate forb cover.
Bobolink B, M  
Eastern Meadowlark B, M Prefers moderately grazed pastures.
Western Meadowlark B, M Prefers moderately to heavily grazed pastures.


Management Recommendations

Landscape-level Recommendations

  1. Support state and federal programs that manage, enhance, or restore grassland habitats on private lands. Develop cooperative agreements with private landowners to prevent habitat fragmentation and conversion in areas critical for grassland bird conservation.
  2. Partner with the agricultural community to ensure rural working landscapes with high amounts of open space suitable for birds and other wildlife.
  3. Determine what scale of landscape management is possible in an area: medium (400-2,000 hectares) or large (>4,000 hectares). Consider developing a grassland Bird Conservation Area in appropriate landscapes (see Fitzgerald and Pashley 2000).
  4. Prioritize land acquisitions that permanently protect important grassland projects within key ecological landscapes. These lands form the nucleus of protected grasslands within a matrix of partner-private lands projects.
  5. Offer incentive payments to defer grazing on private lands where priority grassland birds are nesting.  

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Create and maintain appropriate vegetation structure through manipulation of cattle stocking rates. Generally, the stocking rate will be up to 1 head of mature cattle per acre to achieve light to moderate grazing (Ochterski 2005, Renfrew et al. 2005).
  2. Consider rotational grazing in place of heavy, continuous grazing. Rotationally graze cool-season grasses in spring and fall and warm-season grasses in mid-summer to maximize productivity while minimizing habitat disturbance (NRCS 1999).
  3. Rotate livestock to spend 1-5 days of light to moderate grazing per paddock. Grassy vegetation can be browsed in any one paddock down to 5” to maintain forage quality and provide adequate cover for grassland birds (Undersander et al. 2000, Ochterski 2005).
  4. Graze alternate paddocks across a pasture to increase bird nest success. This practice leaves greater ground cover in some portion of each bird’s territory than if paddocks were grazed sequentially (Undersander et al. 2000).
  5. Provide 30-50 days of rest between grazing periods in each paddock. Longer non-grazing intervals in pastures improve nesting success (NRCS 1999, Undersander et al. 2000).
  6. Restrict livestock from sensitive nesting areas (NRCS 1999).
  7. Set aside one third of a pasture area as an ungrazed and unmowed refuge from May 15 - July 1 and rotationally graze the remaining grassland area. After July 1, the refuge area can be mowed and incorporated into the rotational grazing schedule (Temple et al. 1999).
  8. Situate ungrazed paddocks (refuge areas) away from trees and next to each other to increase overall size of refuge area. Create a single, large refuge rather than multiple small refuges (Undersander et al. 2000)
  9. Avoid planting dense monocultures of cool- or warm-season grasses. Reduce grass seeding rates by up to 50% to reduce vegetation density and to encourage forbs (Sample and Mossman 1997).
  10. Include enough forb seeds in mixes to result in at least 10% forb cover. In most cases, 10,000-20,000 forb seeds per acre should produce a noticeable forb component (Sample and Mossman 1997).
  11. Remove linear woody features such as hedgerows and woody fencelines as well as adjacent woodlots to improve site suitability for grassland birds. Low density, scattered shrubs are acceptable and even required by some grassland birds such as Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, and Brown Thrasher (Sample et al. 2003, WDNR 2005, Kost et al. 2007).

Ecological Opportunities

Ecological Landscape Opportunity Management Recommendations
Southwest Savanna Major All
Western Coulee and Ridges Major All
Western Prairie Major All
Central Lake Michigan Coastal Important All
Central Sand Hills Important All
Central Sand Plains Important All
Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Important All
Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Important All
Southeast Glacial Plains Important All
Forest Transition Present All
North Central Forest Present All
Northeast Sands Present All
Northwest Lowlands Present All
Northwest Sands Present All
Northern Highlands Present All
Superior Coastal Plain Present All

Research Needs


Key Sites

Pastures occurring on private lands can complement adjacent public lands by increasing overall grassland heterogeneity and size. Listed below are native grassland sites that might benefit from nearby pasture habitats:

Key Partners

Funding Sources

Information Sources


Contact Information

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

Website by J Davis Web Design