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How much food does rice provide for migrating waterfowl?

Most people know flooded rice fields provide a major food energy source for ducks as they make their way south in late fall. But what would happen if there was no rice in the fields that provide stopovers for the birds on their way to winter quarters?

Mark Petrie, manager of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited in Memphis, Tenn., discussed a study that pinpoints how much U.S. rice acres contribute to migrating waterfowl on their annual treks during a presentation at the USA Rice Federation’s Outlook Conference in St. Louis.

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a joint effort between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, has established continental population objectives for waterfowl and created a total of 24 regional joint ventures in the U.S. and Canada to deliver the plan.

“Five of those joint ventures are focused primarily on breeding waterfowl,” Petrie said. “But 19 of them are focused primarily on migrating-wintering waterfowl, and the important point I want to make is that 50 percent of all wintering, dabbling ducks in the U.S. occur in just three of those joint ventures.

“And those three joint ventures coincide with the major rice growing areas in the U.S. We have the Central Valley Joint Venture in California, the Gulf Coast Joint Venture in Louisiana and Texas and the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture in the states of Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and west Tennessee.”

Collectively, those three areas winter half the waterfowl in the U.S., and contain almost all the rice acreage, he notes. They also have about 75 percent of all pintails, which have been a concern in the waterfowl management community for about three decades. “The connection between pintails and rice is a very strong one and one that is widely recognized.”

When you look at the food demand from ducks in the three joint venture areas, it’s almost a bell-shaped curve that starts at low levels in September and gradually rises in October, November and December and then slowly declines in January, February and March.

The amount of food for the ducks – a combination of the vegetation remaining in rice fields, coastal marshes and forested wetlands – follows a similar pattern that, fortunately, is significantly higher than the demand from waterfowl. In the Gulf Coast joint venture, for example, flooded rice fields accounts for 42 percent of the food available to ducks.

What happens if you remove rice from the system? “Basically, birds would run out of food in that early-winter or late-winter period,” said Petrie.

Ducks Unlimited staff members looked at what it would take to establish these rice areas if they weren’t there and came up with some staggering totals for purchasing the land, restoring them so they could be flooded and maintaining and flooding them on an annual basis.

“We estimate the cost of replacing the rice acres in the Central Valley of California, for example, at $2.2 billion,” he said. “And we estimate the operating and maintenance costs of keeping the land in rice and flooded at $25 million to $30 million annually.

All of those costs are now born by rice farmers and, "quite frankly, public agencies simply don’t have the resources to provide those resources these days and are, in fact, walking away from them in some cases.”

Petrie said the loss of rice acres in the Gulf Coast area of Texas due to a lack of water are already documented. And what’s happening with rice varieties in the Lower Mississippi Valley is also having an impact.

“What’s transpiring in the Mississippi Valley over time is as producers have gone to earlier maturing varieties, those fields are being harvested two to three months before the birds begin to show up,” says Petrie. “By the time the birds actually get there a lot of that waste rice has been consumed by other critters.”

Experts believe that even if only a relatively small percentage of the rice base in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley is ratoon cropped, it could offer tremendous potential to reverse that trend.

The lack of snowpack and the resulting drawdown of the reservoirs that serve the California rice area are also creating concerns about food supplies for waterfowl in that region.

Petrie said the final report, which is being funded in part by the Rice Foundation, is expected to be released in March of 2014.

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