Small Grains

Photo by Greg Kidd, NRCS.

Habitat Description

Habitat Crosswalk

Sample and Mossman: Small Grains (Sample and Mossman 1997).
Vegetation of Wisconsin: N/A (Curtis 1971).
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Natural Communities: Surrogate Grasslands (WDNR 2005).


The Small Grains community includes cereal crops such as oats, barley, rye, and spring and winter wheat but excludes corn and soybeans (see Row Crop). Although small grains are planted primarily for human and livestock consumption in Wisconsin, they also are useful for soil conservation (Conley et al. 2008). Small grains can be alternated with row crops and legumes in a series of narrow strips to reduce soil erosion. Strip intercropping systems such as this also help to diversify agriculture, improve yields, reduce pests, and potentially enhance wildlife habitat (Stallman and Best 1996, Boerboom et al. 2008). During the winter and spring, small grains often are planted as cover crops to protect the soil from wind and water erosion and consequently provide important cover and food resources for resident wildlife (Ryan 1986, UWEX 1998).

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, alfalfa, pastures, and orchards. 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 birds adapted to these changes and used the diversified, small-scale farms as surrogate grassland habitats (Warner 1994). By the mid-twentieth century, however, farming systems became more specialized. Non-crop habitats such as grassy corridors, field borders, idled lands, and farm ponds were eliminated in order to plant larger sections of monotypic crops (Warner 1994, Best et al. 1995, Sample et al. 2003, WDNR 2005). Synthetic fertilizers negated the need for diversified crop rotations and enabled crops to be grown at higher densities. Modern pesticides, farm machinery, and farm policies also led to a reduction in crop diversity and resulted in large acreages of small grains being converted to corn and soybeans (Chamberlain et al. 2000). According to the most recent Census of Agriculture, small grain crops now represent only 8% of the harvested cropland in Wisconsin (USDA 2002).

Natural Disturbances and Threats

Mowing operations drastically alter the structure of small grain crops and disturb associated wildlife. However, small grain harvest occurs late in the growing season and thus is less disruptive than the harvesting of row crops or early-maturing hay (Herkert et al. 1996, Koford and Best 1996, Sample and Mossman 1997). Chemical applications can diminish the habitat value of Small Grains by eliminating invertebrate prey and non-crop plants (Best et al. 1995, Pollock 2001, Boatman et al. 2004). Thus, cropping systems that reduce pesticide and fertilizer input are better for wildlife populations than systems that depend heavily on these chemicals (Sample and Mossman 1997). The intensification of agricultural practices also threatens to convert remaining small grain fields to 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 pressure on small grains, 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, surrogate grasslands such as Small Grains become increasingly fragmented and less suitable as wildlife habitats.

Related WBCI Habitats: Idle Warm-season Grasses and Forbs, Idle Cool-season Grasses and Forbs, Pasture, Hay, Row Crop.

Overall Importance of Habitat for Birds

In some areas of Wisconsin, croplands often are the only habitats available for grassland bird populations. Although species diversity can be relatively high on croplands, their habitat suitability depends on crop type, farming techniques, field size, and adjacent habitats (Ryan 1986, Best et al. 1995). Small Grains provide more secure nesting habitat than other crops because they are harvested after most nestlings have fledged. Early in the season, Horned Lark and Vesper Sparrow nest in small grain fields with residual cover or emerging seedlings. Once the plants begin to grow in height, the vegetation structure becomes suitable for more generalist species such as Red-winged Blackbird and Savannah Sparrow as well as females seeking second nest attempts and dispersing fledglings (Sample and Mossman 1997, Conley et al. 2008). Small Grains also provide important foraging opportunities throughout the year. During the winter and spring months, cover crops of small grains can provide scattered patches of food and shelter for Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, and other resident birds. Small grain crops attract rodents and thereby are beneficial to Northern Harrier, Red-tailed Hawk, Short-eared Owl, and other raptors that prey on small mammals. Plowed fields that are shallowly flooded also provide valuable foraging areas for migrating shorebirds, especially during spring migration (Sykes and Hunter 1978, Helmers 1992, Rottenborn 1996).

Grassy edge communities and other non-crop habitats located in close proximity to small grain fields can increase food abundance and provide more complex vegetation structure. Adding conservation buffers such as field borders, grassed waterways, terraces, and contour grass strips will create valuable roosting, loafing, thermal, and escape cover for a variety of bird species (Smith et al. 2005). During the winter, these habitats also provide additional seed sources that are vital to sparrows, finches, and other resident species (Rodenhouse and Best 1994, Smith et al. 2005, Conover et al. 2006). Increasing connectivity of non-crop habitats will further enhance their value to wildlife, particularly for species with limited dispersal capabilities such as Northern Bobwhite. Long-term set-aside programs such as the Conservation Reserve Programs (CRP) also provide many benefits to grassland bird populations, especially when blocks of cropland are idled rather than linear tracts and a wide variety of grass and forb species are included in the planting mix (Koford and Best 1996).

Priority Birds

Species Status Habitat and/or Special Habitat Features
Canada Goose
(Mississippi Valley Population)
F Forages in small grain fields with abundant waste grain.
Tundra Swan F Forages in small grain fields with abundant waste grain.
Greater Prairie-Chicken f May forage in small grain fields surrounding core protected areas in central Wisconsin.
Sharp-tailed Grouse f  
Northern Bobwhite F Forages in small grain fields with abundant waste grain.
Northern Harrier f Hunts rodents in small grain fields.
Migratory Shorebirds f Use flooded fields primarily during spring migration.
Barn Owl f Hunts rodents in small grain fields.
Short-eared Owl f Hunts rodents in small grain fields.
Sedge Wren b, m Prefers dense herbaceous cover and a substantial component of residual vegetation.
Common Yellowthroat b, m Prefers dense herbaceous cover.
Vesper Sparrow b, m  
Grasshopper Sparrow f  
Henslow’s Sparrow b, m Prefers dense herbaceous cover with a substantial component of residual vegetation.
Bobolink B, M  
Eastern Meadowlark B, M  
Western Meadowlark b, m  


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). 

Site-level Recommendations

  1. Identify excess fields, fields with highly erodible soils, and marginal agricultural land to enroll in long-term set-aside programs. Preferably these areas are adjacent to one another to create a single, large refuge area (Undersander et al. 2000, Ochterski 2006).
  2. Establish grass conservation buffers along sloped areas, waterways, and field borders to reduce runoff and provide undisturbed wildlife habitat (UWEX 1998).
  3. Delay mowing of conservation buffers and set-asides until after the breeding season:
  4. For lands managed for conservation, delay mowing until September 1 to protect late-nesting species and fledglings.
  5. For lands requiring invasive species control or other priority management actions, weigh the impacts of delayed management versus mowing-induced nest failures. If delayed action threatens the property’s ecological integrity, early mowing may be warranted.
  6. Explore use of alternative crops and cropping practices such as native grass biomass crops and inter-cropping practices (NRCS 1999).
  7. Remove linear woody features such as hedgerows and woody fencelines as well as woodlots to improve site suitability for obligate grassland birds (Sample and Mossman 1997, WDNR 2005, Kost et al. 2007).
  8. Reduce pesticide and synthetic fertilizer input. Institute both Integrated Pest Management practices and crop rotations that provide a source of nitrogen such as alfalfa, clover, soybeans (UWEX 1998, NRCS 1999). 

Ecological Opportunities

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

Research Needs


Key Sites

Small grains 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 small grain 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.

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