Whether you farm crops, wildlife, or both, the objective is the same, according to wildlife biologist Jody Pagan and crop consultant Ronnie Helms. Find the highest and best use for each field on the farm.
Pagan is formerly a wetlands coordinator for the federal government and now chief biologist for Five Oaks Wildlife Services, a wildlife consulting venture started by Pagan and rice producer George H. Dunklin Jr. He also manages all wildlife on the properties of Dunklin and his sister, Deborah Dunklin Tipton, near Stuttgart, Ark.
Pagan's job as a wildlife manager is to find the right fit for wildlife habitat, wetlands and cropping systems for the farm, then maintain those systems. His tools are government programs such as CRP, WRP and EQIP, his knowledge of duck ecology and the expert agronomic opinion of Helms.
Under the guidance of Pagan's and Dunklin's vision, the Dunklin farm has evolved into a demonstration farm where farming agriculture and wildlife are seamless enterprises. The farm is home to rotating cropping systems of rice, soybeans, grass and millet, and over several thousand acres dedicated to waterfowl.
The same tools that Dunklin and Pagan are using to turn the Dunklin farm into wildlife and farming enterprises can be applied by any farmer or private landowner looking to maximize returns on his farm, notes Pagan.
A classic example is the farmer who rents a farm, a third of which is marginal and losing money. But he farms it all to get the rent on the farm.
“It makes more sense for the landowner to subdivide that into marginal, sub-marginal and prime farmland, and provide the appropriate uses,” Pagan said. “Put each piece of land into something that is going to make an annual sustained return. Almost every farm you look at has a place that you're losing money on and the smartest thing to do is enroll it in a program while it's still there.”
While funding for WRP has fallen sharply in recent years, there are still plenty of opportunities to put land into CRP, says Pagan. If you do go with CRP, there's a $100 per acre incentive up front, plus the cost rental rates, which have been re-calculated. “So you're looking at anywhere from $57 to $72 per acre dryland rental plus the incentive payment, plus 90 percent of the restoration costs through CRP.”
EQIP funds can also be used on farmland, for example to put in a tailwater recovery system, a new re-lift station or precision leveling. “A patchwork of programs is available for people to do the right thing with their properties, to see the highest and best uses,” Pagan said.
Farming wildlife and crops on the Dunklin farm requires a team effort. Ronnie Helms and consultant Jay Coker farm the crops, while Pagan and Marvin Baker, director of field operations, farm wildlife during the duck season. “But we try to coordinate,” Pagan said. “When they're cutting the first field, that's when Marvin and I come back in to drill millet. It's a team of half ag and half duck people.”
“Jody and I mesh together because we're going to max out beans and rice and we're going to max out ducks,” Helms said. “He does his thing and I do mine, but we work really well together.”
Whether you're a farmer flooding up 40 acres for duck hunting or a private landowner wanting to create a hunter's paradise on part of your land, getting waterfowl to light in a field comes down to one thing — making sure there is ample food.
Just flooding up after harvesting rice or soybeans may not provide enough food to keep ducks around because of changes in cultural practices over the last few years. “We used to harvest in November,” Helms said. “Now we're harvesting in August and September. That makes it harder for the seed to remain viable without sprouting or the blackbirds eating it up.”
“There has been a loss of agricultural food in the landscape in the last decade,” Pagan said. “Our only hope to have the amount of food that we've had historically in the Mid-South is a second crop of rice, a bean crop followed by a millet crop, or growing moist soil plants post-harvest in our ag fields.”
Helms bred a variety of millet, Golden Grass 102, specifically for this purpose. GG 102 is planted in fields shortly after rice or soybean harvest by air or drilled with a Great Plains drill or a food plot drill on smaller acreages. The herbicide Aim can be used to control broadleaf weeds in millet. Aim is also labeled for use on CRP lands, noted Helms, and can be crucial to keeping CRP land attractive to waterfowl.
To prepare a well-rounded buffet for ravenous ducks, the key is habitat — green tree reservoirs will produce high-carb acorns, while moist soil environments and rotations of weeds, millet and crops provide carbohydrates, proteins and fats. “That's what we have to do to manage for ducks, a mosaic of habitat,” Pagan said. “If you're going to manage ducks, you need all the resources the birds need in a 10-mile radius.”
Couple these practices with a great hatch up north and cold weather, and the waterfowl will come, according to Pagan. “You can't control the weather nor can you control the hatch, but you can control habitat on your property. Habitat management is the key to success.”
Understanding the reproductive cycles of ducks is also crucial, according to Pagan. “When ducks are molting, they need protein. The only source of protein of any volume in the Mississippi Flyway are invertebrates, or bugs in stubble fields or moist soil habitats. So we'll bushhog the weeds and put the water on. The invertebrate bloom will be so high on these ponds, that ducks will gorge themselves.
“We want an early fall flood before the frost to establish the invertebrate population in a pond. We are looking for an explosion of invertebrates in our moist soil habitat plus a high yield of weed seeds. That's what the weeds are for, seeds and bugs.”
Ducks then move into pair bond phase, when they need the thermal cover of the woods and acorns for the energy, and the hens need aquatic invertebrates for protein to go through a second molt. “They'll snack on rice or soybeans, but if it gets bitterly cold and they're still in the pair bond phase, they're looking for high levels of energy — acorns and corn. So when it gets really cold, that's when the ducks really hit the corn.”
Last fall, a month before duck season opened, the team effort had accomplished its task. Thousands of ducks rested in the 6-inch waters feeding on a smorgasbord of millet and bugs.
Pagan, says now is a good time for farmers and/or landowners to find the highest and best use for agricultural land they own.
“State and federal governments and non-profit organizations are seeking ways to restore marginal land to wildlife habitat, whether it be quail, ducks or deer. That's a big focus in society today, green space. You can work with the system and create a model farm with good water conservation, excellent wildlife habitat and excellent crop production.”
Whether this is accomplished on a small scale or a large one, make sure you have the best advice possible before proceeding. Pagan and other experts offer their services for a fee. Pagan and a group of his professional friends also teach workshops on waterfowl, moist soil and green tree management.
“You don't want to have a $2 million duck club, a high-dollar shotgun, the best pit and the best dog and see nothing out there but a bunch of blackbirds,” Helms said. “You want to create an environment for farming and hunting. If hunting is your revenue source for the winter, then you want to deliver a product.”
“Gather information on the property, yield data and start making some sound decisions on the highest and best use for each piece of property,” said Pagan, noting that commodity prices are just part of the equation. “If the highest and best use is recreational value, then build it.”