Downside of wildlife programs

We quickly learn in this business that one man’s caviar and Champagne may well be just smelly fish eggs and icky grape juice to another.

In recent weeks, we’ve run articles about land management to conserve and enhance wildlife habitat in order to encourage growth and sustainability of native game populations.

While many farmers and landowners realize significant extra income from these endeavors through fees for hunting, others see burgeoning populations of deer and other game as the path to crop losses and ruined gardens and landscaping.

My colleague, Elton Robinson, has reported on the travails of farmers whose crops have been pillaged by deer (and who’ve had scorn heaped on them by urban neighbors when they — legally — killed some of the animals), and I can personally attest to the futility of trying to have flowers and other ornamentals when they become a buffet for marauding Bambis that pay no heed to city limits.

If people allowed cows or other livestock to run loose, destroying crops and landscaping, there would be a hue and cry to stop it. But deer can do it with impunity, and for the most part they’re protected by laws and/or pressures of an indifferent public.

Following recent articles about wildlife habitat management, I received several comments from readers about the downside of encouraging wildlife. Excerpts of one e-mail follow:

“First, let me make clear, I’m an avid deer hunter and love being in the woods during deer season every year after the crops are harvested and equipment cleaned and put up for the winter.

“My wife and I farm in central Mississippi, in what is referred to as the hill section. There is some very productive land in areas along and near the Big Black River watershed and its tributaries. There are a few areas of large, open fields. We have lived and farmed here for 25 years, moving here from the Delta area of a bordering state, to farm on our own after farming with my father and brother. Our first crop was in 1983, which was not a very good time to go it on our own — it was a struggle, but we made it work.

“This was before there were mandates from the federal government to control erosion and reduce runoff of soil into our rivers and streams. Farmers in the hill sections were required to implement a farm plan, designed by the Soil Conservation Service (now NRCS), to control erosion on highly erodible land (HEL).

“Farmers in the Delta sections of the Mid-South have no concept of the problems we have with erosion and the rules and regulations with which we have to comply — and if we don’t, we lose our farm program payments. Farmers and land owners in the highly erodible areas have made great strides in reducing runoff from fields.

“Coming here from a Delta area and adjusting to hill farming and the power of fast-moving water from the top of a hill to the bottom has been an education. In the Delta, we ditched and drained water off fields as quickly as possible to keep it from standing too long on the crops. When we moved to Mississippi, we had to learn to slow the water down and divert it with terraces, grass strips, and grass waterways that would catch the soil before it made it to the streams.

“One thing I have learned in 25 years of hill farming is that we can never stop erosion, but only reduce it.

“Now to the point of wildlife enhancement: I’m not against these programs — until they threaten our crops and become a costly nuisance.

“The NRCS has done great work conserving our natural resources and can be proud of their work. A few programs that the federal government has implemented include EQUIP (Environmental Quality Incentive Program), WHIP (Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program), FIP (Forest Incentive Program), and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program). All are good programs and have done much to conserve our soil and create wildlife for many to enjoy.

“I suppose we can consider my area an overwhelming success for wildlife enhancement. Many farms that used to grow cotton and soybeans in our county and surrounding counties now are growing pine trees, subdivisions, golf courses — and abundant wildlife. For hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities, it’s a great thing and has been a boon to land values.

“But if you’re trying to make a living farming in these areas, it is becoming more difficult every year. For hunting clubs and landowners, the wildlife explosion is wonderful; for many farmers, it’s going to put us out of business.

“Here’s what we’ve had to deal with this spring, as farmers in a wildlife enhancement success story area. We planted our corn in March and got a pretty good stand, very little replanting needed — until the birds moved in and began digging it up and eating the kernels. Blackbirds, crows, and turkeys dug up about 75 acres out of the first 230 we planted. There was not a Section 18 at that time; later AVIPEL was released for use on birds. But, we can’t place all the blame on birds; the raccoons and possums also deserve a lot of credit for their destructive work.

“The next corn we planted was no-till into cotton stubble. No-till is great for reducing soil erosion and reducing costs of tilling before planting. What could be wrong with that? Well, snails moved out (of the surface trash) and ate the corn before it came up, and some after it came up. We had to go back and replant about 100 acres out of 300 acres.

“The rest of the 600 acres of corn we planted went OK. It warmed up and the corn grew through the birds and snails without replanting. We planted our 600 acres of cotton in April and got a near-perfect stand. Then it started to rain in May and the Big Black River stayed at or near flood stage for about three weeks and flooded 35 acres of our corn. When the rains subsided, the river stayed up, but we were able to start planting on our 900 acres of soybeans in late May and finished the first week of June. Some replanting was necessary on the first 300 acres we planted due to a 2.5-inch rain we got a couple of days after planting.

“We had a near-perfect stand of soybeans. Then we started seeing more and more deer every day — not really an abnormal thing in our area; not a day goes by that we don’t see deer. But not this many, every day, in the middle of the day.

“Farmers up and down the Big Black River, and even in areas away from the river, are having their crops eaten by deer. Every year we have problems with deer eating our corn and cotton; now, with soybeans being planted much more than in the past, the deer are in ‘hog heaven’. One farmer in our area had to replant 600 acres of soybeans because of the deer.

“There are many farms and fields on which soybeans cannot be planted because the deer will completely annihilate them. Most farmers around us have gotten permits to shoot deer in their fields, and I have just received mine. I’ve resisted shooting deer in the past because there are so many I didn’t think it would help much and would just litter the fields with rotting carcasses, attracting buzzards.

“So much wildlife habitat exists here, and with so many hunting clubs and landowners growing deer, I’ve always felt that shooting them was futile. But, after replanting 75 acres of beans out of 300 and 65 acres of cotton out of 600, we had to do something.

“Now, our deer ‘un-enhancement program’ consists of applying a repellent, such as HINDER, noise guns that make loud booms, and carrying a rifle in the truck and shooting deer when I catch them. We’ve had one bordering landowner ask us to try and not shoot the bucks — well, deer don’t have horns this time of year.

“I’ve thought about asking the landowners and hunters bordering us to compensate us for the damage the deer are doing to our crops, but usually the deer only ‘belong’ to them during deer season.

“Farmers in our area have known for years that agriculture could eventually be crowded out by urban growth and city folks buying up farm land, putting it in the CRP, collecting payments from the government, and enhancing wildlife. But I don’t think anyone ever thought we would be pushed out by animals that are only doing what comes naturally for them.

“For areas of the country that are concerned about saving the wildlife, they can be assured that here in central Mississippi we have enough woodpeckers, crows, blackbirds, turkeys, raccoons, possums, skunks, coyotes, squirrels, and deer for years to come. (Oh yeah, we also have worms and plant bugs to deal with on a daily basis, and let’s not forget the hurricanes and tropical storms that pay us a visit almost every year.)

“I don’t want to come off sounding like a whiner or complainer, because no one is forcing us to farm. I also thank Delta Farm Press for articles on issues important to agriculture, although I’m afraid most of them aren’t read by people and politicians who need to know what agriculture is truly about and the struggles farmers face in every aspect of farming, from planting to harvest.

“I think the non-farm public still thinks farmers are the way we’re portrayed on television — farming 50 acres, wearing overalls, and feeding the barnyard animals every morning. They don’t know that the bulk of the food produced in this country is from medium to large family farms, not by weekend farmers or so-called ‘factory farms’.”

e-mail: [email protected]

TAGS: Management
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