Make the winter pay with waterfowl: You need: small investment, good marketing and smart lease

Week after week, the classified sections of farm publications and local newspapers are filled with ads taken out by people willing to shell out big bucks for the chance to land that perfect duck hunting enclave.

What that means for you, as a farmer or landowner, is a chance to reap healthy dividends this winter from an investment of a few hundred dollars now.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 90 million ducks are expected to fly south this winter in search of a safe haven with plenty of available food sources. Often, a rice or soybean field, or adjoining wetland area, is just what visiting waterfowl are searching for.

"There are more ducks now than we've had in the past 50 years," says Trey Cooke with Delta Wildlife in Stoneville, Miss. "Farmers interested in leasing land have a lot of options because hunters are leasing everything from prime honey holes where food, water and trees are plentiful, to precision-leveled rice and soybean fields where there's not a tree in sight."

For those wetland areas that adjoin rice or soybean fields, Cooke says, all that may be required to create a duck hunting paradise, is to build a few duck blinds, at a cost of about $150 in lumber per structure. He suggests building the duck blinds at a height of about 1 foot above the level water is likely to rise to this winter.

Where there is less water available for visiting waterfowl, a hunting pit can be sunk into a permanent levee in a precision-leveled rice or soybean field. In this scenario, water control structures are used to maintain a shallow flood on the land throughout the winter months.

Providing a food source for your expected winter visitors is also simplified for those areas surrounded by wetlands or other natural water sources. Cooke says, "Native vegetation is some of the finest duck food in the world. The last thing you want to do is disk up a duck hunting area covered in smart weed or sedge. Utilizing the grasses and weeds that are already growing in an area being developed as a waterfowl habitat is also the cheapest way to go."

If a habitat for wintering waterfowl has been cultivated or is lacking vegetation in some areas, Cooke recommends planting corn or Japanese millet. "Ninety days is all Japanese millet needs to become a viable food source for ducks," he says. "One of the great things about Japanese millet is that it is a cultivar of a native, wetland plant, commonly found in the Delta."

Japanese millet, which is able to germinate on exposed mud flats and tolerates shallow flooding during growth, produces mature seeds anywhere between 50 and 90 days after planting. The seed can be broadcast on exposed mud flats or can be planted broadcast into dry land that has been disked.

The key to attracting hunters to your hidden hunting treasure, Cooke says, is marketing. Whether you choose to offer a lease for an entire block of land or on a per-duck-blind basis, spend the same amount of energy attracting potential hunters as do attracting the ducks.

Cooke says farmers considering leasing cropland for duck hunting this winter may also want to consider either purchasing additional liability insurance or requiring any prospective hunters to produce proof that they are fully insured in case of an accident.

"You will need to write a lease contract, specific to your individual circumstances, to protect your land rights. In this contract, you can include any limitations, including the number of people allowed to hunt at one time or which available entry to the farm is preferred.

Another option, for those growers interested in developing waterfowl habitat, is to enroll in a government program such as the Conservation Reserve Program or the Wetlands Reserve Program.

The Wetlands Reserve Program pays the landowner a per-acre payment in exchange for a promise to restore and protect wetlands on the property. This voluntary program also allows the landowner to maintain title to the land.

"The Wetlands Reserve Program helps farmers set aside unproductive farmland by giving them a financial incentive. Once the land is idle, biologists from Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups can help out by advising landowners about ways to enhance the property so it is wildlife friendly," says L.J. Mayeux, president of Ducks Unlimited.

For more information, or for assistance in writing wildlife and waterfowl management plans, contact Delta Wildlife at 662-686-3370.

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