Flooded fields give grower economic, agronomic benefits

Flooding wintering conservation tillage crop fields can positively impact both the environment and your wallet, according to Chris Cole, director of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited.

Mississippi rice producer Charles Berry testified to both the economic and agronomic benefits of the production practice at this year's Conservation Tillage Cotton and Rice Conference in Robinsonville, Miss.

“It's been hard to make it farming the way it's been in recent years, and the income we've gotten in the last three years from leasing duck hunting fields has really helped our bottom line,” says Berry.

The Tunica County, Miss., rice producer says he started holding a winter flood on his crop fields to attract waterfowl for hunting but has discovered many other benefits to the practice.

Winter flooding enhances no-till rice production, which allows Berry to increase his planted acreage. “We drop the water off the first of March. Then, we let the ground dry up, make one burndown herbicide treatment, and drill the rice into the ground,” he says. “The practice of establishing a winter flood, combined with conservation tillage, allows us to spend more time planting, and harvesting, instead up working up the ground.”

Holding water until the first of March also reduces weed pressure, eliminating the need for a second burndown herbicide application. “With no-till ground, we can get on our ground quicker, especially with track tractors. We also use track combines and track grain-carts, so we don't make ruts. If you make ruts, no-till is out the window.”

Favoring an early planting date, Berry says, “When the ground gets dry at the end of March, we start planting rice, and only one time in 40 years have I had to replant rice. Rice is a rough, forgiving crop if you don't plant it too deep.”

While Berry began adopting a no-till production practice in 1992 for a rice-soybean rotation, he began flooding his fields for ducks decades earlier.

“We had always held some water for duck hunting, and precision land leveling our fields allowed us to increase the practice,” Berry says.

His farm is now land-leveled to zero grade and has been planted continuously to rice for the past five years. “We just couldn't make any money raising soybeans. The winter flooding for ducks certainly went hand-in-hand with what we're doing with no-till rice.”

Continuous rice production does result in a lot of rice straw to deal with, and Berry admits that getting rid of that much straw can be difficult. The water from the winter flood helps rot the straw if you can knock it down to the ground, he says.

“Straw is a problem in rice behind rice. We have mowed straw in stripped rice, and we have burned rice straw before flooding for the winter,” he says. “I had heard that the heat from burning the straw will prevent some seed from germinating and will make better duck feed. All I know is that we had a lot of ducks in that field.”

Berry also planted Japanese millet to feed his overwintering flock. “Actually the geese got there first and got most of it, but the millet will head out in 30 days and make a good bit of duck feed,” he says.

Attracting ducks to his rice fields during the winter months has enabled Berry to cultivate another revenue stream. “I never did think I would want to lease out our duck pits and fields, but now we've got 51 fields for hunting, and even with three boys and myself hunting, we don't need that many,” he says.

Cole goes one step further, saying, “Duck hunters are ridiculous when it comes to duck hunting. We're willing to go places, spend money and do whatever it takes to hunt ducks.”

Conservatively, producers could potential earn anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 per field per year, according to Cole's figures. Some crop fields in Tennessee lease for $10,000 per year for duck hunting, he says. That's quite a chunk of alternative income producers may be able to capture simply by selling a byproduct of their farming operation.

Cole says, “There is a tremendous amount of money to be made. Duck hunting leases potentially could generate $25,000 per field over the course of a 10-year agreement with Ducks Unlimited.”

The 10-year agreement he refers to is the Ducks Unlimited Partners Project. To participate in the project, producers must be interested in holding winter water in production fields greater than 20 acres in size; they must be have the ability to install water control structures and maintain the project field; and they must agree to restrict hunting on enrolled fields to the morning hours.

In exchange, Ducks unlimited will evaluate crop fields for habitat potential, and provides free water control structures and technical support.

To date, 2,315 Delta and Gulf Coast landowners have signed on to the program, representing 320,000 protected and restored acres, and 1.7 million technical assistance acres.

Ducks Unlimited believes the thousands of water control structures producers are installing to maintain a winter flood positively impacts water quality, and reduces soil erosion. To prove their point, Ducks Unlimited entered a partnership in 2001 with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality to assess the program's impact.

The three-year study compared fields with best management practices installed with similar fields without water control structures, and found an 88 percent improvement in sediment and water quality in run-off from those fields with water control structures.

Cole says Ducks Unlimited's mission is not dissimilar to that of a producer. “Really, the only difference is the crop that we are raising, because waterfowl habitat priority areas are dominated by agriculture,” he says. “It's so important that we maintain this relationship with production agriculture. We're seeing the benefits of no-till through our waterfowl numbers, and private land efforts are critical to producing waterfowl habitat.”

Since the group's inception, nearly 11 million acres of wetland habitat have been conserved in North America.

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