Rice lands, once thought to be a plentiful feast for ducks in the Mississippi Delta region, may not provide the banquet predicted.
A recent four-year study by Mississippi State's Forest and Wildlife Research Center indicates the carrying capacity of rice lands for wintering waterfowl actually is about 80 percent less than that estimated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other conservation partners. Carrying capacity is an index of feeding habitat quality.
University researchers conducted their investigation in what is known as the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri. The findings of wildlife scientists Rick Kaminski and Joshua Stafford suggest that an apparent decrease in abundant waste rice might be one factor influencing the number of ducks wintering in the region.
"Though research showed an abundance of waste rice soon after harvest in the early fall, the amount dipped 71 percent by early winter, leaving the rice fields lean pickings for hungry waterfowl," Kaminski explained.
Stafford undertook the research in partial fulfillment of his doctoral degree. In addition to estimating rice availability, he also sought to quantify causes for the loss of waste rice during fall.
"We found that 58 percent of waste rice that fell to the ground after harvest in August through September apparently decomposed,” Stafford said. "Insects, birds or small mammals ate about 14 percent of it, while 8 percent sprouted and grew during fall before frosts occurred.”
Given these factors, MSU graduate students Houston Havens of West and Jennifer Kross of Boynton Beach, Fla., set out to discover how to reverse the downward trend and conserve the waste rice. In continuing research under Kaminski's guidance, they are evaluating procedures on rice stubble such as disking, rolling, burning, and mowing, as well as no treatment at all, to determine which conserves the most rice.
"Although we are beginning to gain insights into beneficial post-harvest management practices, our experiments must be repeated this fall in the region before we can offer recommendations,” Kaminski said.
Meanwhile, Kaminski and Stafford are encouraging rice producers and landowners to allow natural grasses and sedges to grow on fallow agricultural fields and lowlands—a strategy called moist-soil management—and to identify areas on their farms that can be dedicated to these food-rich habitats for waterfowl and other wetland wildlife.
Kaminski said the carrying capacity of moist-soil habitat is six times that of harvested rice fields, on average, based on recent research conducted throughout the region by Ed Penny, a former MSU graduate student now working for Ducks Unlimited in California.
"Utilizing the land in such a manner could be a profitable proposition,” Kaminski said. "These habitats may be more valuable as wildlife leases than as croplands.”
For more information, telephone Dr. Kaminski at (662) 325-2623.