by Mark Carter
The symbiotic nature of farming and hunting has long been praised as part of man’s natural connection to the land, and a new habitat program ensures migrating waterfowl have food on their journey south.
The Arkansas Waterfowl Rice Incentive Conservation Enhancement (WRICE) program, in its second year, was developed by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists to help keep remnants of agricultural foods available for ducks, geese and other migrating birds when they pass through each season.
Fall tillage is becoming increasingly popular with Arkansas rice growers, but the practice isn’t beneficial for the numerous migrating birds looking to find fuel for their long trip.
“By tilling their fields in fall, farmers are hoping to get a head start on next year’s field preparation,” says AGFC Waterfowl Program Coordinator Luke Naylor. “But it can have a lot of impact on the amount of food left for ducks on their land.”
This tilling — the turning under of crop residue — buries that rice missed by the combine; rice that provides much of the energy needed by migrating waterfowl. Flooded rice fields are estimated to provide 11 percent of all food energy in the Mississippi Delta for ducks like mallards and pintails, and that number has dwindled with advances in agriculture.
“New varieties of rice mature quicker for earlier harvests,” Naylor says. “Waste left behind has rotted, been consumed by other animals or sprouted by the time most ducks arrive in Arkansas now. Modern combines also are much more efficient, which means there’s less waste grain post-harvest. Add in fall tilling of fields, and you’re removing a lot of duck food from the Arkansas landscape.”
The WRICE program’s goal is to help keep that grain in the field by offering monetary incentives to rice farmers for doing so. Naylor says the program isn’t paying for farmers to leave rice standing unharvested; rather, it’s incentivizing them to leave the post-harvest waste rice above ground (and available to ducks) and to keep their water control structures closed, which traps rainwater to flood fields and thereby attracts more waterfowl.
Naylor says the commission is focused on rice fields within 10 miles of a waterfowl-focused wildlife management area (WMA). “We know ducks don’t just stay locked down to one area. They bounce around the landscape within complexes of quality habitat. We’re targeting program delivery to build on these complexes.”
The WRICE program will benefit hunters as well as ducks. Ensuring more waste grain in fields located close to WMAs leads to more resources for ducks around popular public hunting areas. And this year the program will increase public hunting opportunity because it now offers additional payments to landowners who allow limited public hunting access to their property during duck season. Naylor says the details are still being hammered out, but he’s optimistic it will become a successful part of the program.
“There are programs throughout the country and in Arkansas that offer payments to landowners for public access to their property but asking for that same access on waterfowl property in Arkansas has always been seen as too big of a challenge,” he says. “We’re hoping we can work with landowners to break down that barrier and offer more opportunities for waterfowl hunters here.”
Farmers who participated in year one of the program and interviewed anonymously by AGFC are on board. They point to flooded fields resulting in subsoil moisture that benefits next season’s crops; some even want the program expanded.
“I can tell you, when you hold that water, some of the indirect benefits from it, you can actually see where that water line is in the field,” says a Searcy farmer. “I can show you in a perfect growing scenario, if we get into a dry year, that crop looks better where that water line was versus the part of the field that didn’t stay in the water the rest of the year.”
Other farmers are noticing further water management benefits to the program.
“I think we [see] a lot less runoff into the ditches,” says another White County farmer. “I [like] controlling that water in the wintertime when you’re getting those steady, large amounts of rain, and being able to back that water up and slowly take it off the field, versus it just running off and then you get those gully washers.”
For one Dermott farmer, the program represents a win-win for both farmers and hunters.
“At times, it can just be so good to give a father and son or someone the opportunity to go out, experience the outdoors and hopefully have a good hunt.”