What's GOOD for the GOOSE may not be for wheat

It's likely the closest thing you'll see to snow in the Mississippi Delta, but the feathered flocks congregating in the region's wheat fields this winter may turn out to be just as unwelcome as the frigid temperatures that accompany frozen precipitation.

Large numbers of overwintering geese — larger than in years past — are blanketing wheat fields in the region. In fact, the numbers are so large that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has extended its spring light goose hunting seasons to help reduce the excessive goose populations and limit habitat damage.

According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the special snow goose conservation season was initiated several years ago and continues this year in an effort to reduce the snow goose population by 50 percent from present levels. Snow geese numbers have expanded more than 300 percent in the last three decades to a current population of approximately 6 million.

In the Delta, one of the preferred habitats for these overwintering snow geese appears to be the area's winter wheat fields.

This influx of snow geese and their choice of a preferred habitat could be bad news for the area's wheat producers. “There's probably more potential for the visiting geese to hurt the area's wheat crop than there is for them to help improve yields,” says Erick Larson, Extension grain crops specialist at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.

“Snow geese will often use their bills to grub out the crown of the plant, or pull wheat plants out of the ground, particularly if the soil is soft and muddy,” Larson says. “Topical grazing will not generally damage wheat until the plant begins to joint or stem elongation begins, unless geese extract the entire plants.

“After the first node forms at the base of the stem, the growing point begins moving up the stem, making it vulnerable to grazing damage.”

The bottom line is that if the geese eat more than just the leaves on the stem above the ground, they can do damage to plant below ground. That could reduce your wheat stand, and more than likely will reduce your yield potential.

No one, however, disputes the extra fertilization provided by the geese making their home in the Delta's green wheat fields.

And, as long as the geese feeding is not sustained until after wheat breaks dormancy and begins stem elongation in late February, there shouldn't be any significant yield reduction. That is, unless geese are reducing the stand by extracting plants from the ground.

Either way, Larson says, its best to prevent large numbers of geese from congregating and feeding on your wheat fields. That, of course, may be easier said than done.

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