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Study confirms cotton farmers face major deer problem

Georgia survey reveals deer cost cotton farmers as much as $152 million in 2023 alone.

Brad Haire, Executive Editor

May 20, 2024

5 Min Read
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For years, word spread that something was going on. Deer were destroying cotton like never before. Now, new information suggests deer could be Georgia cotton’s No. 1 economic pest.

This past winter, University of Georgia Extension surveyed cotton farmers, crop consultants and county agents to glean just how bad deer hit Georgia cotton fields. In all, 525 people responded to the survey, which accounted for about 450,000 acres of Georgia’s roughly 1.1 million acres of cotton. We’ll discuss details about the survey, but let’s cut to the chase.

“Based on the group we surveyed, and we had a considerable number of respondents, if you add up affected acres, yield losses observed and the cost of mitigation measures, you're looking at a $139 million, and up to a $152 million, negative economic impact on Georgia’s cotton industry alone from deer,” said Camp Hand, the UGA Extension cotton agronomist who spearheaded the survey.

Based on the surveyed information, deer in 2023 cost Georgia cotton farmers more than any other major pest, including more than pigweed, nematodes and stinkbugs.

Farmer's perspective

Lee Cromley farms in Bulloch County, Ga., about 50 miles west of Savannah and one of the state’s top cotton-producing regions. Deer have become a primary economic concern. He was planting cotton on May 15 when he spoke to Southeast Farm Press.

“I’d say 20% of our acres have gotten moderate damage, where the deer hit around the edge of a field. Then in 15% to 20% of our acres, the deer go farther into the field and cause much more damage. For example, last year we picked a 100-acre farm where we should have had 1,200-pound average, but we came out of that field with a 600-pound average, all due to deer damage,” he said.

Cromley said the deer eat cotton at seedling size up to the six-leaf stage. “And after several years of fighting and replanting, last year we decided why plant it again, because the same thing is going to happen. The deer will hit it.”

If Cromley could press a button to stop the deer damage today, the long-term impact will linger for years to come, affecting his crop insurance coverage in relation to his dwindling yield history over the years strictly due to deer.

deer-damage-graphic-(1).jpg

“We get calls about deer every year, but this past season was different. It was really bad. At first, I thought maybe we were getting more calls because, due to perfect weather, we had good stands, and we had more young cotton up. Then, the more I talked to people, we found out that this was serious,” Hand said.

The survey asked:

  • If deer are an economic problem in cotton.

  • Annual cotton acreage (used to calculate acres represented in responses).

  • Percent of cotton acres affected by deer.

  • Percent yield loss observed on affected acres.

  • Money spent on mitigation measures for deer damage on cotton.

  • Mitigation measures used by growers only.

The responses from farmers, consultants and agents were statistically the same. White-tail deer affected between 35% to 40% of Georgia’s cotton acres in 2023. On affected acres, respondents reported between 35% and 41% yield losses caused by deer.

It’s not clear why the problem has flared recently, he said.  

“Even the older farmers say this is something they’ve not seen before, not like it is today” Hand said.

Two highly successful programs may have set the stage for deer problem, Camp said.

By the early 1900s, white-tailed deer faced extinction caused by hunting. But since the 1950s, the population has increased dramatically due to targeted management, and it continues to grow. And the boll weevil eradication program paved the way for Georgia farmers to grow much more cotton, switching decades ago to cotton over soybeans, which deer favor.

To mitigate white-tailed deer damage, the 2023 surveyed growers used depredation permits (70.6%), replanted cotton (64.2%), and applied repellents (52.1%), Camp said.

Fewer growers indicated they had used fencing to reduce deer damage (11.7%), or indicated they did something not listed (14.4%), which included responses such as the use of artificial noise makers and scarecrows, he said.

A start

It’s a major agronomic issue with no traditional agronomic tools to manage. Camp is committing manpower to the deer problem, but it’s in early stages.

“The survey is a starting point. The solution or solutions will take a lot of cooperation from differing departments, agencies and people, along with developing educational programs and maybe policies, because the problem is here and it’s real,” he said.

The problem is not Georgia’s alone.

Earlier in 2023, Alabama Cooperative Extension System released its results from a survey that asked farmers about deer damage. At the time, 58 farmers representing 36 counties responded.

In total, respondents reported 37,750 total acres of row crops affected, an average of 317 acres per farmer. Cotton was the top crop affected by deer at 17,654 acres.

When asked how often deer are a problem on the farm, 95% of respondents selected “every year” while 3% selected “every couple of years,” 2% responded “rarely. None responded “never.”

Alabama farmers were also asked to report what percent yield loss they estimate are lost to deer affected acre, based on differences in yields from affected and non-affected areas. Deer caused an average of 33% yield loss across responses with a range of 0-100% loss reported.

Alabama farmers estimated yield losses and cost of mitigation strategies averaged loss $290 per acre, ranging from $23 to $1,200 per acre.

According to Clemson University data, deer are a top problem for many South Carolina farmers. Research there revealed losses in 2022 to cotton, soybean and peanut farmers were roughly $114 million.

According to a previously published Farm Press article, Clemson University Wildlife Specialist Cory Heaton said the $114 million figure does not include expenses for deer-induced replating, additional herbicide applications, additional repellents and other such costs. He noted the figures are an extrapolation and should be considered an estimate given the limited data currently available.

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