Growing crops is expensive and farmers can’t afford to have fields damaged by wildlife, such as deer and wild hogs. Other species work into this, too, but few come close to the level of destruction we see where deer and wild hogs are abundant.
Most of us who work with crops will agree that pound for pound the feral hog is the most destructive animal for crops, especially corn. In many cases it’s futile to even plant corn since hogs will dig it up and eat the seed before anything emerges. At least for now, hogs are only in some localities, but each year they seem to spread to new areas. In a few more seasons, farmers may not be able to plant corn unless they invest in expensive electric fences, and even then the porkers will likely break through.
Although hogs are not as interested in soybeans and cotton, deer seem to specialize in them and only feed on corn fields around the edges. Deer are most destructive in soybean fields, beginning their feeding as soon as new seedlings emerge. They seem to enjoy the tender seedlings that are still in the cotyledon stage.
We have learned to quickly look for where the seedling has been bitten off, and we have come to accept a situation in which deer only bite off the terminal. This type of damage is better than finding the plant bitten off below the cotyledons. When that happens, the plant is finished.
Farmers have tried many things to discourage this wildlife feeding. Approaches include scarecrows, propane cannons, predator scents, reflective devices, moth balls, lights, dogs and the shooting animals after obtaining a permit. In some cases one would think farmers are preparing for an invading army, which in a sense these animals are.
Within the last couple of years I have observed the damage of deer in soybeans and cotton fields and I believe there are some basic things that can be used to discourage their damage. I doubt that any of this will work on wild hogs, but where deer are the main issue, it may help.
Using cover crops like wheat helps the land by reducing soil loss and retaining nutrients, but an added benefit seems to be that deer do not like to feed on young emerging seedling where desiccated cover crops are present and where the new crop is planted without tillage into the standing stalks of these plants. I believe that I have mentioned this in the past, but there seems now to be another part of the story.
Recently, I saw where a standing cover crop had been cut down and left on the soil surface. Soybeans were then planted into it. Deer feeding was reduced to a very low level compared with other beans in the area that were on bare soil. This seems an ideal combination in which the wheat provides its usual benefits while at the same time allowing newly emerged seedlings to avoid damage by deer.
It seems that deer either do not like to walk on this layer of straw or they don’t like to put their noses down into the mulch to feed. Regardless of which, it seems to work. How long it will take before deer overcome their fear of mulch is anybody’s guess, but for now it may be a way to protect young seedlings.
The problem now is how to get people to avoid burning their wheat straw so that it can protect their beans from deer. Burning makes planting easier, but why plant if deer arrive to eat the crop before it’s made?
Thanks for your time.