Designed for Wildlife
fields going into the spring of the year, when flocks of ducks and geese are starting to break up," Heggemann says. "Rice fields are used heavily during pair bonding. The birds are trying to pair, and they need isolation to go through their mating rituals. Rice fields give them isolated pockets they can go to."
"They also provide seeds and invertebrates to build up their egg-laying capacity. Mashed stubble provides a lot of invertebrate matter for birds to feed on. They are getting animal protein for the development of their eggs, plus a calcium buildup also."
Federal and state governments have developed programs to encourage rice farmers to reflood their fields after harvest. The idea was to make habitat for waterfowl. A new program may combine funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with state funds. Money from private organizations like Ducks Unlimited may also be involved.
Davis Minton farms rice and other crops near Dexter. He has restored over 150 acres of wetlands in cooperation with the Conservation Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He was one of the first farmers in the Bootheel to participate in a federal rice field leasing program by reflooding about 550 acres of his own land. That program is over, but Minton continues to reflood his fields for waterfowl, and he has encouraged other rice growers to reflood their fields after harvest.
The Missouri Chapter of the Wildlife Society recognized Minton with its Farmer/Wildlife Award in 1993. His nomination noted he was, "...highly respected in his community, was known as a progressive farmer using innovative ideas and techniques such as no-till farming and 'outside' rice levees capable of maintaining a flooded field after harvest." Much of his wildlife habitat work- from building levees to buying pumps to move water - has been at his own expense. He designates a portion of his own reflooded land as a refuge.
"I enjoy waterfowl hunting," Minton says, "and I've always maintained flooded fields for personal hunting. But I have also had a keen interest in waterfowl management - I just enjoy seeing the birds - and wondered what I could do on my own property. It's gratifying to see what I could accomplish." He sees the spread of level-grade rice farming as a boon, and notes that though these fields are flooded for farming purposes, they provide great benefits for wildlife.
"If somebody comes up with better mousetrap or good technique, I'll try it," Minton says. "We are always piddling with something just to see what we can do with farm management, and at the same time trying to be more environmentally friendly. I think there can be a pretty good mesh if there is some cooperation and a bit of knowledge shared back and forth between the Conservation Department and private land owners."
Ducks Unlimited has a program called "Valley Care" to increase rice-field wetlands in California's agriculture-intensive Central Valley, and a similar program may come to Missouri. The Conservation Department will continue to look for landowners with an interest in creating permanent wetlands on their property, and also look for opportunities to purchase tracts that can be restored to permanent wetlands.
The "Great Swamp" of the Bootheel is no more, and waterfowl numbers don't compare to the annual flights of 100 years ago, but there are still ducks and geese in southeast Missouri that need a helping hand from farmers and conservationists. Between the Conservation Department, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited and cooperative rice farmers, they will probably get it.