Designed for Wildlife
newer technique. "Farmers want waterfowl in these fields," says Larry Heggemann, a Conservation Department wildlife biologist who works with Bootheel landowners. "Ducks and geese feeding in rice fields fertilize the field with their nitrogen-rich droppings, and they also consume the weed seeds in the field and help decompose the rice stubble. Birds like snow geese do a lot of rooting as they feed, and that's good for the field, too."
Level or "zero-grade" rice farming is in wide use in California. Zero-grade rice farming is more expensive than the older method, but Missouri growers with the largest farms - and the most capital - are beginning to use it. "One Bootheel farmer has 5,000 acres on zero grade, and it has water on it all winter," Heggemann says. "That's a sizable amount of water for ducks and geese to use."
No matter which method farmers use to grow rice, they are faced with the problem of what to do with the stubble after the rice has been harvested. Old methods included burning, which doesn't work well and creates air pollution, to discing and flailing, all of which mean draining the field first.
A new method for disposing of stubble is also proving valuable to waterfowl. Rice farmers use a four-wheel-drive tractor to pull a big roller through still-flooded fields. The roller smashes the stubble down and incorporates it into the mud where it decomposes more rapidly. Rolling as opposed to discing a field allows for continuous flooding.
Ducks and geese happily settle into the water, feeding on waste grain, weed seeds and the invertebrates that thrive in the decomposing stubble. Farmers once kept fields flooded during the duck season because it produced good hunting; now they are keeping water on their fields all winter because it's good business.
Heggemann offers drain structures for rice farmers to use in their fields. These prevent the destruction of levees when the fields are drained before harvest. By making it simpler to maintain water in the fields, the Conservation Department hopes that more farmers will reflood rice fields after harvest for waterfowl use. Fall and winter rains usually provide the water for reflooding, saving farmers the expense of running pumps. Farmers who use the structures must agree to keep water on their field after harvest for three of five years, and the structures usually must remain in place until early March.
"We are trying to get extended use of rice