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Designed for Wildlife

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Published on: Mar. 2, 1996

Last revision: Oct. 21, 2010

One hundred years ago, fall flocks of ducks and geese poured down the great south-flowing funnel of the Mississippi River, resting and feeding in an unending chain of wetlands that speckled the river bottoms. That was in the days when oxbows and sloughs in the flood plains of most rivers were kept brimming by yearly floods, and when a sprawling permanent wetland near the juncture of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers was known simply as the "Great Swamp."

Missouri once had about 5 million acres of wetlands, half of them in the Bootheel. Now much of those wetlands are gone, and only about 60,000 acres remain in southeast Missouri. The hardwood swamps of the Bootheel were cut for timber and then drained for farming.

The United States as a whole has lost half its wetlands, and the pressure for converting wetlands continues today. Oil drillers, subdivision builders, agribusiness farm operators and resort developers all want to expand into wetlands. And though there are regulations in place to protect wetlands, the United States continues to lose thousands of acres of wetlands each year.

Still, millions of ducks and geese travel the Mississippi flyway each fall and spring, and each acre of wetland, be it new or old, permanent or temporary, is valuable. Waterfowl crowd into the Missouri wetlands that remain, some on public land like the Conservation Department's Otter Slough Conservation Area, and some on private lands owned by family farmers or hunting clubs.

The seasonal ebb and flow of waterfowl is an important part of nature. Ducks and geese are handsome birds, and thousands of people travel to refuges to see them. Others enjoy the rich tradition of waterfowl hunting. But hunter or not, rural resident or city dweller, most of us enjoy seeing fall flights of ducks as a sign of the season. Who doesn't feel a tingle at the sight and sound of flocks of snow geese flying north on that first warm day in late winter?

Some 75 percent of the wetlands remaining in the United States are held by private landowners. There will never be enough money for the Conservation Department, or any other agency or non-governmental organization, to restore all of the lost wetland acres in the Bootheel by buying them outright.

Some private landowners, though, are voluntarily creating new temporary wetlands in Missouri. These flooded sites don't have the cachet of permanent wetlands, but they provide high protein food for wintering waterfowl, and help prepare ducks and geese for spring migration and nesting.

Missouri farmers harvested about 124,000 acres of rice in a recent year, all of it in the Bootheel. This acreage is flooded during the growing season, then drained and the rice harvested. It can be reflooded and left wet all winter, benefiting both farmer and waterfowl. If all of the Bootheel rice fields were reflooded in the fall, they would greatly increase the amount of wetlands available to wintering ducks and geese.

Rice seems an exotic product in a state where corn and soybeans are the top farm products. Rice farming has come to Missouri via the Grand Prairie of Arkansas where the summer product is rice and the winter product is duck hunting. The town of Stuttgart calls itself the "Rice and Duck Capital of the World," and some farmers make more money as a host for duck and goose hunters than they make from their crops.

Most of Missouri's rice is grown in Stoddard County in two bands of impermeable soils that fall on either side of a long sandy ridge. Missouri, because of topography and weather, is about as far north as domestic rice can be grown in the U.S.

Shallow water, waste grain and weed seeds pull in wintering ducks. Some farmers reflood these fields after harvest to provide duck hunting, then drain them after the hunting season is over. There are benefits to the farmer, however, in keeping the fields flooded until spring.

Rice farming hasn't escaped technology. Even traditional farming methods may use laser equipment to level fields before planting. After the land is leveled and rice is planted, a special plow is used to create levees 18-to 24-inches high. Water helps the rice grow, and it also keeps down weeds that would contaminate the crop.

A newer rice-growing technique has arrived in Missouri that holds even more promise for ducks and geese because it permanently floods fields. It's called zero or flat-grade rice farming. The land is leveled, as in the other method, but a permanent levee is built around it. Rice is planted on the flooded field from an airplane. The older method requires farmers to plant a crop other than rice every third year because of weed problems, but with the field permanently flooded weed problems are reduced and a crop of rice can be grown year after year.

Waterfowl play an integral role in this 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 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.

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