Wildlife management to benefit farms

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

A farmer’s viewpoint on wildlife depends upon how the farmer uses the land. If it’s for growing crops, wildlife is likely not welcomed; however, some farmers harvest game from their land and offer others opportunities for hunting, so attracting the right wildlife is important. MidAtlantic Women in Agriculture recently hosted “Fur & Feathers on the Farm” as a webinar presented by Luke Macaulay, Ph.D., wildlife management specialist with University of Maryland Extension.

Macaulay said deer management relies up on understanding deer behavior and biology. He likes using integrated pest management for deterring deer, including vegetation, fencing, repellents and population control. “You might use some of these at different times, depending on your situation,” he said.

Deer are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. Their energy needs increase during late spring and summer.

“There’s a change for energy needs in the deer throughout the year,” Macaulay said. “When pregnant and especially when lactating, they peak in mid-May and into June, July and August. It’s also a time for a lot of damage for freshly planted crops. They need almost double the energy requirements just as farmers are putting in highly palatable crops.”

They eat heartily too. An average deer eats about 6% to 8% of their body weight per day (about six to 12 pounds) of green forage.

Since does tend to travel in small groups, deer damage can add up quickly. Carrying capacity refers to the maximum population size of a species that can be sustained by a specific environment or place where the species is using resources. “As the population reaches this carrying capacity, the growth of the population stops,” Macaulay said. “In reality, you have situations where populations can overshoot the carrying capacity and have die backs.”

In some fields, deer may make more serious inroads than farmers realize by a casual view driving or walking by. The animals may lessen plant growth by eating off the tops of plants.

“When you’re on a combine with a yield monitor, you can see there’s yield damage extending much further into the field than you can see on foot,” Macaulay said.

“We’re looking at if forage soybeans would be a diversion or biological fence to keep deer out of the cash crop of corn in the center,” he said. “Anecdotally, it’s working to prevent loss of yields.” This type of vegetation management can provide ground cover while sacrificing a less valuable crop for a more valuable one.

One snag in the plan is that forage soybeans tend to mature later than desirable – but they are trying to find earlier maturing varieties, Macaulay said. The preference of forage soybeans is the “Big Fellow” variety. It grows tall and offers large leaves. Macaulay said “Big Fellow” proved highest in crude protein, moisture and copper and lowest in dry matter.

Fencing may also help keep deer away from crops. “If you have a fence eight to nine feet, deer won’t jump over it,” Macaulay said. “They can, but it’s a deterrent.” Plastic mesh fences work, but Macaulay said they require more maintenance. They are the least expensive.

“Woven wire at eight feet is very expensive – $10 a foot,” Macaulay said. “They’re highly effective, as long as you close the gates. If the life of the fence is 20 years, the fence pays for itself in about 20 years. It’s a breakeven prospect. If you have higher value crops, this can start to make more sense.”

Electric fences rely upon producers training the deer to avoid it. “Put peanut butter or other attractants on the metal so they lick it and they’ll realize they don’t want to go near it,” Macaulay said. Electric fences require good maintenance, including mowing so that tall weeds don’t interrupt the current.

He recommends erecting two tiers of fences because deer have poor depth perception. “They can’t tell where the fence starts and ends and they don’t like to jump over it,” Macaulay said. “It’s very effective but takes more space out of your production area.”

Macaulay said deer repellents can be expensive, but may be worthwhile for farms with lower deer pressure.

Using dogs to repel deer can be effective. Farmers can use underground fencing for keeping the dogs where they want them. Macaulay said this works best if the dogs can spend a lot of time outdoors, especially during the night.

“Depending on your topography, two dogs can provide 20 to 30 acres of protection, especially if it’s a flat area with ease of access,” Macaulay said.

For those interested in attracting deer, either as game or to divert from a valuable crop, Macaulay advised using cool season perennials like clovers, alfalfa and chicory; cool season annuals like oats, wheat and winter peas; and warm season plantings like soybeans, corn, cowpeas, lablab and American jointvetch.

“Clovers are a great option and grow pretty easily,” he added. “Cool season plants you plant in fall will often carry through into early summer where they die back or are beat out by warm season varieties.”

Hunting can also help. “There’s a real opportunity to reduce damage and improve the quality of hunting on the property,” Macaulay said.

He thinks that quality deer management includes enhancing hunting quality while reducing densities. That can ensure the ideal, middle-aged deer are available for harvest and that the buck-to-doe ration of 1:1 to 1:2 helps ensure replacement deer.

Deer, a minimum of three to four years old, offer enough meat to make their harvest worthwhile. Older deer can be tough. Bucks achieve their lifelong largest antler size by age three to four.

“Age structure is an important thing to think of when managing your deer and their harvest,” Maccaulay said.

Managing game birds for harvest relies upon maintaining the habitat the birds need. The bobwhite quail needs warm season grasslands, shrubby cover areas, hedgerows and early succession habitat.

Many birds need areas they can access dirt to peck around. “Cool season grasses don’t allow for that,” Macaulay said. “Warm season grasses have that room.”

Birds in these habitats also need areas where they escape from predators to make it an ideal habitat. “Escape is really key, especially in very healthy populations,” Macaulay said. “They need to be able to get in shrubby areas and brambles in hedgerows.”

Disking, controlled burns and, less ideally, mowing, can help maintain the early succession habitat. “Generally, you’ll do these on a three-year rotation to maintain it for quail to keep small trees and saplings from growing up,” Macaulay said. “Mowing isn’t as preferred as it leaves a thatch on the ground.”

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