Agriculture and waterfowl hunting have enjoyed a friendly relationship through the years.
Farmers earn extra income leasing their flooded rice fields to hunters, who get to indulge their favorite sport with the added benefit of supporting the local economy as they descend on rice growing regions each season.
But changes in rice production methods, designed to maximize harvests for human consumption, are reducing the amount of food available to migrating waterfowl.
As the largest rice producer in the United States, Arkansas offers winter-flooded rice fields as habitats for ducks and other wetland-dependent birds. That includes the ducks who flock to the fields to eat waste rice, weed seeds and aquatic invertebrates in the shallow water.
Arkansas produces 72 percent of all rice in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV), and late fall waste rice is estimated to provide 11 percent of dabbling duck food energy in the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture (LMVJV).
Past studies have shown that only standing-stubble, burned-and-mowed fields contain average amounts of waste rice at 45 pounds an acre or more. Previous research shows that if the available waste rice is below that threshold amount, mallard ducks give up on a habitat.
It is clear Arkansas rice is an important food component for wintering waterfowl and naturally it is the visiting birds that have helped make waterfowl hunting an important industry in the state.
As farmers tend the earth with care, doing their best to preserve water and keep the land healthy in order to provide abundant yields, it is clear the agriculture industry makes a major difference in conservation in the state.
Yet the increased use of early maturing varieties of rice, plus earlier harvests, have contributed to an estimated 60-percent decline in waste rice compared to the 1980s.
The dropoff is due in part to rice seed germination, decomposition and consumption by other wildlife species between harvest and peak waterfowl migration. The additional impact of fall tillage is limiting the availability of waste rice as a waterfowl food source.
A by-product of rice production is rice straw, which incurs extra costs for removal or if it is left to decompose in the field. Tillage is essential for straw removal and seedbed preparation in spring and to ensure that physical barriers or biological effects don’t affect germination.
Fall tillage can help farmers get a head start on spring planting, and it helps manage residue, resulting in faster decomposition and better seed-to-soil contact.
While tillage practices like disking aid in straw decomposition, it can serve to bury rice and weed seed that would attract waterfowl. The practice is also costly in terms of labor and fuel, erosion and moisture loss.
But there are alternatives.
Delaying fall tillage along with winter flooding of rice fields is a form of waterfowl-friendly agriculture that also serves to reduce rice straw at a percentage comparable to disking.
A farmer who delays or foregoes fall tillage could see cost savings from reduced field operations, but only if the costs of maintaining a winter flood are less than the cost of disking.
Additional savings can likely occur from enhanced straw decomposition as the result of waterfowl foraging.
To further alleviate expense and provide incentives, programs are available through the Rice Stewardship Partnership, a union of Ducks Unlimited and the U.S.A. Rice Federation, which operates through a number of agencies and industries — including agriculture — to help farmers with the expenses related to alternate, winter field management methods.
Re-thinking fall tillage doesn’t necessarily mean harvests will suffer, and neither would critical winter habitat for waterfowl, the sport of duck hunting or economic benefits for farmers.