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Delaying grain harvest protects young ducklings

Issue Date: May 20, 2020
By Bob Johnson
Roger Cornwell, general manager of River Garden Farms, says he and other farmers are very environmentally conscious, and delaying grain harvest to protect young ducklings is just one example.
Photo/Bob Johnson

River Garden Farms outside Knights Landing is delaying harvest of more than 200 acres of wheat to allow the mallard eggs nested in the cover to hatch before heavy equipment rumbles across the field.

Wheat and other fall-planted grains make ideal nesting habitat for the mallards, except that the usual harvest in late May or June can come a few weeks before the waterfowl hatch and leave the field.

"I know there are nests out there because I see the hens take off and land," said Roger Cornwell, general manager of River Garden Farms. "I don't know where they are, but I know they are out there."

For the last decade, River Garden Farms has flooded rice fields after harvest until the early spring, and when there is water available wheat stubble in the late summer, to provide habitat for the shorebirds that seek winter refuge in the Sacramento Valley, and during the last four years has joined in a recovery program that found and removed more than 1,100 mallard eggs from its fields before harvest.

"It's us taking care of the environment; the environment takes care of us," Cornwell said. "We believe in it."

This season, Sacramento Valley farmers enrolled more than 10% of the region's wheat acreage in a new California Waterfowl Association program that gives growers a modest stipend to help cover associated costs in exchange for agreeing to delay harvest until July.

"The goal is to let the nest hatch naturally," said Caroline Brady, California Waterfowl Association programs supervisor. "The very best thing is for ducklings to be reared by their mothers."

The California Wheat Commission, California Rice Commission and Audubon Society have all endorsed the effort, and many Sacramento Valley wheat farmers were willing participants when asked to hold off on their harvest, in exchange for a modest payment, until the mallards had a chance to hatch.

"We contacted 150 wheat growers to offer $30 to $40 an acre to delay their harvest until July," Brady said. "We had 35 properties sign up with 83 fields totaling 7,684 acres in seven different Sacramento Valley counties. It is more than 10% of the Sacramento Valley wheat acreage, if you look at the wheat survey that came out in early May."

Those acreage numbers would have been higher if more grant funds had been available to help defray the costs of delaying the harvest.

"We were accepted for 75 acres, but we have another 80 acres on the waiting list because they were oversubscribed," said Ben Carter, who grows 3,000 acres of rice, orchard and row crops in Colusa County with his wife Denise under the name Benden Farms.

He has not found mallard nests in his wheat this year, but Carter said he knows they are out there because he, like Cornwell, has seen the hens go in and out of the fields.

He said he believes waiting for the eggs to hatch is worth the risk of his grain shattering or lodging, which would make harvest more difficult and expensive.

The Carters, like most of the other farmers signed up for the delayed wheat harvest, have also participated in the egg recovery program in which volunteers come out before harvest to find eggs, incubate them, and raise and release the ducklings after hatching.

"California Waterfowl comes out and rescues nests before we chop and incorporate our cover crops," Carter said. "We have found a little over 20 nests in the cover crops. It's a combination of mallards and turkeys. The mallards lay about eight to 12 eggs per nest, and the turkeys about eight."

Six years ago, California Waterfowl established the egg recovery program, in which volunteers scour the fields of participating farmers in search of eggs that can be recovered, hatched and raised to the age at which the mallards can be released.

"We operate an egg salvage program in cooperation with farmers to rescue nests prior to harvest or field work in agricultural fields," Brady said. "Nests are located and delivered to a licensed hatchery where eggs are incubated, and ducklings reared for five weeks with minimal human interaction before being released into the wild."

California Waterfowl started the Delayed Wheat Harvest Incentive Program this year because while the volunteers do the best they can to prepare the chicks for life in the wild, they are not mother mallards.

"The survival rate after the eggs are recovered and hatched is pretty low, because the young mallards don't know what a red-tailed hawk looks like," Brady said.

Sacramento Valley rice fields provide essential habitat for waterfowl from the fall to the early spring, but fall-planted grain fields are just as important because they provide nesting ground.

"In California, we know our vast rice fields serve as surrogate wetlands for waterfowl and other wildlife," Brady said. "But our fields of winter wheat and triticale can play an equally important role as surrogate uplands where ducks and other ground-nesting birds can build nests safely hidden from predators in the dense growth."

The steep decline in mallards has been particularly severe in the once-robust breeding grounds of the Sacramento Valley, where the California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates the population has declined from 250,000 around the turn of the century to just 50,000 at the latest count.

"The biggest reason for the decline in the mallard population is the lack of habitat," Brady said. "In the Sacramento Valley, there is an awful lot of rice in the summer, but rice does not provide upland nest habitat. Upland is not wetland, and to nest, ducks need upland that is dry, has vegetative cover and is near a source of water."

Loss of mallard breeding habitat has closely paralleled the decline in Sacramento Valley acreage of wheat and other small grains, which offered the ducks dry ground for nests and vegetative cover for the eggs.

"Farming has accelerated to the point we're not fallowing much if any land," Brady said. "There are also a lot more permanent crops like orchards and vineyards, where in the past there were more row crops and cereal grains."

Mallards nest mostly in April and May and the peak hatch month is June, when most California wheat is traditionally harvested.

"Depending on the year, harvest begins anywhere between late May and early June, often before the majority of ducklings can hatch and get out of the field," Brady said. "This results in complete loss of the nest, and often the hen, if she doesn't flush away from the harvester in time."

Fortunately, the mallards have found friends among grain farmers stretching from the delta to fields in the northern Sacramento Valley.

"We have done egg recovery in the past; we even have an incubator on the ranch," said Gary Mello, farm manager at Mello Farms on Tyler Island in the delta. "We have a little over 130 acres of wheat in the delayed harvest program this year. I've seen mallards and wigeons flying in and out of the field."

He said these programs help waterfowl survive in an increasingly urbanized world, and also help city dwellers see the greener side of agriculture.

"It helps farmers get a better look from the public," Mello said. "It helps the public see that farmers do care about the environment."

(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Sacramento. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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