Deer Management on CRP
The need to manage crop planting and harvesting is one of the challenges facing anyone that owns farmland. If you are a farmer, the solution is an easy one. But, if you are not then sharecropping, cash renting or paying for custom work are about your only options. Farming is a business with more than its share of risk, so it is little wonder that many landowners who don’t farm themselves turn to government programs such as CRP to reduce their headaches while providing a consistent income.
CRP farms, and active farms with some CRP fields, are very common in many parts of the country. Often these are found in hilly and rugged areas where soil erosion is an issue. This is exactly the kind of terrain where you will also find the very best deer habitat. As a result, many farms in the best deer producing areas are comprised of at least some CRP fields.
While on the surface it would seem that CRP restricts the amount of food you can produce for deer and other wildlife, you might be surprised when you look a little deeper. There are actually three very good programs within the CRP regulations that you can and should be taking advantage of, and a couple of ways that you can also use these government programs to create more deer habitat – all while getting paid to do it.
Managing CRP to Increase Deer Feed
There is some leeway built into the execution of the CRP regulations that permits individual Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) district conservationists to adapt the wildlife aspects of the program to specific circumstances. For that reason, it definitely pays to use the following information as merely a starting point – food for thought – as you work with your county’s district conservationist to set up your personalized CRP management plan.
I’ve personally had some experience managing CRP for wildlife, but to further my understanding I spoke with Monroe County, Iowa District Conservationist John Frieden. The remainder of this article is a combination of my experiences and John’s recommendations.
Plenty has been written about the many kinds of food that should be planted to feed deer at various times of the year. Suffice it to say that nearly all of these plantings can be made within the guidelines of the CRP program in one way or another. There are primarily three conservation practices through which you can improve the food production capability of your land.
Standard food plots:
This is the most obvious way to increase feed levels on CRP. It is the practice with which most landowners are familiar. Basically, you can plant solid stands of food on 10% of your contracted CRP acres with some restrictions. For example, in all but special cases you can’t plant more than 5 acres in one field nor more than 25% of a field. Also, the types of feed that can be planted are restricted but the most common deer foods are on the list of allowable plantings. For example, you can plant corn, sorghum, soybeans or clover to name a few. These can be maintained in clean stands that are fertilized and controlled by herbicides if you desire.
It is important to note that planting 10% of your contract acres in wildlife food does not remove those acres from your CRP payroll. In other words, you get paid for those acres, as well.
The shape and layout of the fields depends to a great extent on how you prepare them. Erosion control is still CRP’s number one over-riding priority. Anything you do on these acres needs to be in keeping with sound soil conservation practices. Therefore, if you prepare the ground by tillage you will need to plant in strips following land contours. If you plant using no-till practices you have more leeway in the shape and location of your fields. This is a point that should be taken up with your district conservationist when you go into the office to change your CRP contract to include food plots.
Early succession programs:
A little known program that exists within CRP regulations offers excellent opportunities for clover establishment. It is called “early succession”. In essence it is little more than the preparation of your land to produce weeds. That’s right, I said weeds. Believe it or not, you can enter up to 30% of your CRP acres in this practice – and that’s on top of the 10% planted in standard food plots.
Of course, you are responsible for controlling particularly noxious weeds (a list is available at the soil conservation office) from spreading so you will have to cut or hand spray for them selectively.
Early succession programs were initiated to support upland bird habitat. Basically, you can work the soil and then leave it to grow whatever germinates. While you aren’t allowed to treat the ground with chemicals or mow it once begins to grow, there is nothing that says you can’t spread clover seed on the worked soil and then fertilize it.
Though clover requires maintenance to reach its potential in terms of feed production, it establishes fast and will hold its own in a new planting. The second year may be a bit dicey from the standpoint of clover production, but you will get at least one good year out of each such planting. Also, there is nothing that prevents you from reworking the same ground the following spring and starting a fresh early succession cycle with another fresh dose of clover seed.
Managing CRP for Better Cover
Many would be surprised to learn that the government soil conservation programs provide for a means to establish cover that is very compatible with whitetail deer. Not only that, but also these programs will actually help you pay for the trees and then pay you handsomely every year for keeping those acres in cover.
Riparian buffer strips:
If your farm is low on cover and has any kind of waterway flowing through it you have a great opportunity to dramatically increase deer habitat through the use of riparian buffer strips. These strips border any waterway and provide for the establishment of trees and shrubs within a strip that is 180 feet wide on either side of the waterway. That’s a total band of cover 120 yards wide! That’s a football field goal post to goal post.
Because water quality and waterway erosion are such high priority efforts in all soil conservation programs, there are tremendous incentives to stabilize the soil bordering any kind of waterway. If you are converting cropland to buffer strips you will be paid 125% of the calculated land rental rate for that soil type every year. This can be well over $100 per acre in areas with decent soils.
When converting land with no crop history into buffer strips you will receive slightly more than $85 per acre every year. You also receive cost share for the purchase of the trees, shrubs and grasses that you plant. This program is part of what is called a continuous sign-up. There is no specific enrollment period; you can walk in and sign up for it at any time.