Farm Transitions: Valuing Sustainable Practices—Wildlife Habitat

Many of the principles for establishing and managing habitats for beneficial insects also apply to establishment of wildlife habitat in general. Establishing and maintaining habitat can be purely for aesthetic and conservation purposes, or it can be done with an eye toward encouraging the presence of game species. Fee hunting or hunting leases can be a significant source of farm income if the farm acreage is large enough and productive enough (see Profitability of a Hunting Lease text box). Tennessee reports an average hunting lease size of 663 acres (1). It is not necessary for all or even most of the farm’s acreage to be in habitat plantings in order for it to be a good location for hunting game species. According to the Mid-America Hunting Association, “… once there is food then there [are] good deer to be found. The deer will make use of whatever cover that is near their dinner table (2).”

Many wildlife species thrive in edges between their nesting and shelter areas and tilled crop areas, so arranging a farm to have several relatively smaller habitat plantings can be as good as or better than a large single block of habitat in terms of species diversity and productivity (3,4).

Habitat plantings might be permanent native grass and prairie plant species to provide shelter, nesting areas, food and space for whatever species you want to encourage. Game examples include quail, pheasants, grouse, ducks, geese or deer. Non-game birds as well as mammals, reptiles and amphibians will also be attracted to habitat areas. Attracting wild game and non-game species to agricultural property might also involve planting food plots of annual crops, or leaving unharvested strips of cropland for winter feed (5).

The Cost/Benefit Table for wildlife habitat does not include any mention of cost-sharing or annual payments from public or private programs. Land in wildlife habitat may certainly be eligible for such programs, especially if the habitat placement is done to maximize soil and water conservation benefits. Some (but not all) of those programs may restrict the landowner’s ability to also charge a fee for hunting on the property. This table shows costs and benefits of habitat with no program support, with a hunting lease as an income source and leaving you to place your own value on benefits to non-game wildlife species.

If having wildlife habitat is part of your vision for the future of your land, then your farm transition plan should include:

  • A plan for who will do the work of habitat establishment and maintenance. A beginning farmer could put “sweat equity” into the establishment work and receive a credit on the land lease or sale price for that effort.

  • A plan for fair division of costs and benefits from the wildlife habitat. There could be a wide variety of arrangements. For example, if retiring farmers or landowners want to retain the hunting rights for themselves and family members, then the value of those hunting rights should be included in the financial planning and the farm operator should receive a credit to make up for hunting lease fees he or she won’t be able to charge.

  • Terms of the lease or sale should specify the boundaries of the habitat areas and prohibit damage to or removal of the habitat.

Even if you ultimately choose not to enroll habitat acres in a conservation program, your local NRCS office could still be helpful in the process by providing maps of your farm and technical advice. Find your local NRCS service center:

Use the Wildlife Habitat Cost/Benefit Table to estimate the value of wildlife habitat on your farm.


(1) Earning Additional Income Through Hunt Leases on Private Land. Craig Harper, Charles Dixon, Paul Jakus, and Alan Barefield. University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, publication #PB1627. (accessed 8/21/13).

(2) Deer Hunting on Private Land in Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri. Mid-America Hunting Association.
(accessed 8/21/13).

(3) A Landowner’s Guide to Prairie Conservation Strips. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University. (accessed 8/21/13).

(4) Field Borders for Wildlife. 2013. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
(accessed 8/21/13).

(5) Enhancing Wildlife Habitat on Farmlands. 2002. Marja H. Bakermans and Amanda D. Rodewald. Ohio State University Extension, publication #W-14-2002. (accessed 8/21/13).

(6) Prices for Leasing Hunting Property. 2011. Discussion thread on Quality Deer Management Association Forum. (accessed 8/21/13).

(7) Economic and Environmental Costs and Benefits of Living Snow Fences: Safety, Mobility, and Transportation Authority Benefits, Farmer Costs, and Carbon Impacts. February 2012. Gary Wyatt, University of Minnesota Extension; Minnesota Department of Transportation Research Services. (accessed 8/12/13).

Further Resources:

Farmlands and Wildlife:
Pennsylvania State Univeristy, College of Agricultural Sciences.
This manual emphasizes the importance of agriculture in maintaining habitat for wildlife. It is also intended as a guide to farmland wildlife, habitat management methods and their benefits, methods of wildlife damage control, sources of financial assistance for habitat projects, and additional educational resources.