Deer relish young soybeans almost as much as kids love ice cream. And with deer populations exploding in many states, that's no small problem.
In fact, some Southern farmers have thrown in the towel and quit raising soybeans on fields that were hardest hit. Tools that are reasonably effective in deterring the deer are too expensive to use on low-value crops like soybeans. That's the bad news.
The good news, especially in hard-hit Southeastern states like South Carolina, is that farmers are no longer the only ones who think it's a serious problem. And they're getting help.
"Back in the '80s and early '90s, wildlife officials had been saying, 'The deer are just browsing around the edge of the field randomly, and they're not causing as much of a problem as you say they are,' " notes Jim Palmer.
"These farmers said, 'Come with me, and I'll show you,' " says Palmer, former extension soybean specialist at Clemson University. "They started getting wildlife biologists out in those fields and showed them the repeated browsing day after day until there was nothing left in whole fields but little stems. Wildlife biologists are now convinced, and they're working hard to help growers solve the problem."
Greg Yarrow, Clemson wildlife biologist, agrees. In many fields surrounded by woods, the damage was extreme, he says.
"In some fields, the crop was virtually gone. But Department of Natural Resources personnel recognize the problem now, and they're trying to do as much as they can."
Wildlife officials have several tools in their toolbox to reduce the deer damage problem, Yarrow notes. Short-term ones include electric fencing, repellents and scare tactics like noise devices. But on soybeans - especially with today's low prices - they aren't good economical choices.
The most effective management tool by far, whether in the South or in Northern states like Wisconsin, where the deer population is exploding, is sport hunting. That's especially so since educational programs have finally convinced hunters that females need to be harvested to control populations.
Ironically, the farmer's case for controlling deer populations and crop damage has gotten a big boost from another source - insurance companies. Insurance officials are going bonkers over the carnage and cost of deer and vehicle accidents on roads and highways.
"The deer kill with highway vehicles is a huge problem," says Scott Craven, University of Wisconsin wildlife biologist. "It has produced estimates of vehicular damage of well over $100 million per year - not to mention several human fatalities and lots of injuries." For the record, 44,890 deer were killed in traffic accidents in Wisconsin in a 12-month period. Five people died, and 746 were injured in those deer-vehicle collisions, according to the state's transportation department.
"It's sort of sad that if it's just farmers who get hurt, people say, 'Well, that's one of the hazards of farming.' But when it concerns car insurance losses and people getting hurt and even killed, then it becomes definitely more serious," says Clemson crop physiologist Susan Wallace, who has studied deer damage on soybeans extensively.
Complaints from farmers whose crops are eaten by deer increase steadily. In Wisconsin, for example, farmer complaints were up 10% in 1999 in the southern two-thirds of the state. The USDA-Wildlife Service's annual report showed reported losses of 47,782 bu of soybeans in 1998, according to Craven.
Wallace's research has shown that, as expected, soybeans are very tolerant of damage in the early growth stages. However, beans take a yield hit if repeatedly browsed in the later vegetative and reproductive stages.
"Soybeans are one of the crops deer seem to really love, and the problem is that, in fields they really like, they tend to go back to the same place in the field over and over again. They like some varieties better than others and prefer wide rows over drilled beans," Wallace says.
"But if deer populations are high, or if it's a dry year when natural vegetation is scarce, they will eat any variety right down to the ground in some areas."
Wildlife agencies have utilized more liberal hunting seasons, big increases in doe permits and also made it easier for farmers to get depredation permits to harvest problem animals. In the South, especially, that has helped a lot but not solved all problems.
"Some farmers simply can't raise soybeans anymore," Yarrow says. "And a lot of these farmers have gone to leasing their land for hunting, so they are getting some compensation back. In some cases, these lease prices are pretty high."
In some areas, large tracts of land have been leased by hunting clubs. But the number of hunters is too small to kill enough deer in those heavy population areas with high damage.
"In that situation, it's incumbent upon the landowner to require that hunters remove X number of deer as part of their lease agreement, or they lose the lease. And a lot of the deer harvested must be does. Some places do a good job; others don't."