Deer and Agriculture: An Inside Look at the Deer Damage Appraisal Process

Last week I met government agents and heavily armed strangers on a street corner, in a gas station parking lot, and in a cemetery.  But don’t worry.  It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds.  It’s all in the name of research, and it’s all about the deer.  I can explain everything.  First, the government agents.

Lately I’ve been out in the field—literally—with Wildlife Specialists from a USDA-APHIS organization called Wildlife Services.  I’ll tell you more about these organizations next time, but for now let’s just say these people are from the federal government and they really are here to help.  Among other things, they work closely with state and county-level agencies to help mitigate the agricultural impacts of deer.  Here in northern Wisconsin, bears are also a big part of the story.  (Last week we surprised one in the middle of a cornfield.  Despite having just eaten its fill, it managed to move pretty quickly.  Made some awful grunting and wheezing sounds, though.)

The administrative details are complicated, and farmers can choose to enroll in different variations of the program.  But in general, it works something like this: Farmers concerned about deer or bear damage sign up with the program.  Just before harvest, an appraiser assesses the damage.  After lots of calculations, the damage gets assigned a dollar amount.  If it’s over the $500 deductible, farmers get a check in that amount, up to an annual cap of $10,000.  (For the portion that’s over $5,500, the farmer gets 80%.)  The program is paid for in part by surcharges on hunting licenses.

During the following year, the farmer is required to allow access to hunters during the regular season.  In some cases, the farmer also gets shooting permits that can be used outside the regular season.  Farmers can use these permits themselves, or give them to other hunters.  It’s one of those times when you thank the farmer for the hunting opportunity, and the farmer says “No, thank you.”

Since appraisals are a key part of the whole program, I was curious to learn how they work.  My first trip was with someone I already knew, my friend and hunting mentor Eric Fromm.  (He’s also the co-author of my first book, Gut It. Cut It. Cook It.)  This is his day job.  The second time I went out with a guy named Chad Alberg.  He’s a Wildlife Specialist who covers an area farther to the south.  Both are great guys, and I learned a lot from both of them.

Although I’m in no way ready to take over for either of them when they need a day off, I did learn to tell whether corn has been damaged by deer, bears, raccoons, or birds.  That’s important, because only damage from deer and bears is reimbursable.  Deer damage can look different, depending on whether it occurred as the corn was still growing, a little later as the cob was forming, or after the corn was mature and kernels fully formed.  Eric told me the freshest damage would be when cobs were stripped and deer saliva was still dripping off them, so I should probably wash my hands when we got back to the truck.

Raccoon damage is characterized by stalks that are broken and fallen in every direction.  Cobs are stripped, but still on the stalks.  Raccoons climb up the stalks until they break off somewhere near ground level, then eat the corn that’s now within reach, and repeat.  It must be great fun.  Birds, as you might guess, land on a cob, pick away at the husk, and then pick away at the kernels they’ve exposed.  That’s easy to spot.

Bear damage is different.  Bears waddle out into the cornfield, sit upright like a giant furry sumo wrestler, and begin raking in big armfuls of corn.  Then they pick cobs off and chew on them one at a time.  They waste very little, at least from their perspective.  Then they shift their bear butts a bit to the left or right, and do it again.  And again.  This leaves characteristic patterns of stalks all laying down in the same direction, but with a bit of a swirly pattern to it.  Here and there, it almost looks like a big cornstalk mattress.  (You can see an example to the right.)

These fields have all been flown ahead of time so we’ll have aerial photos.  That’s the only way to spot most bear damage.  (In a couple cases, it also told us where we’d find especially severe deer damage.)  There could be a clearing the size of a football field out there, and you’d never be able to see it from the edge of the field.  A farmer would not be happy to discover this while combining.  Although we did see some bear-damaged spots from the edge, we only found others because we knew from the aerials exactly where to look.

Deer damage, on the other hand, is typically worse along the edge of the field—especially if it’s an edge next to the woods.  Sometimes the first few rows are a total loss.  Deer especially like corners.  They prefer soybeans to corn, but seem to enjoy both. 

For both corn and beans, the appraisal process involves lots of measuring, weighing, and moisture testing with a little electronic gadget.  Then there’s lots of calculating.  To vastly oversimplify, you start by knowing how big the whole field is.  Next you measure the areas that are damaged, sample the yield in the damaged and undamaged areas, and then do a little calculating.  Actually, a lot of calculating. 

In the end, the estimates are impressively accurate.  When farmers harvest these fields, their overall yields are usually very close to what the appraisers have predicted.  Although the estimated percentages lost to deer or bear are based on random sampling and certain statistical assumptions, they’re probably pretty accurate, too.

Next time…  APHIS and Wildlife Services: They’re from the government, and they really ARE here to help!

© 2011 Al Cambronne


A Visit to Deer Creek Seed

Deer Creek Seed is one of many companies selling seed and other products to hunters who hope to attract deer by planting food plots.  Some seed companies are much larger, but are actually more marketing companies than seed companies.  One of America’s largest lawn seed companies, for example, is just four guys in a strip-mall office park.  If you visit Deer Creek Seed, you’ll actually see seeds.

Although this is only one part of their business, they’re the very first seed company I wanted to visit as I began researching DEERLAND.  They happen to be right here in northern Wisconsin, and with a name like Deer Creek Seed…  How could I resist?

That morning I learned a lot about the seed business, and then got a fun tour from Deer Creek’s Tim Bauer.  He knows seeds.  He’s an avid deer hunter himself, and in his spare time he does a little product testing on his own food plots.  He’s not alone; over the past decade or so, millions of dedicated deer hunters have begun planting food plots with special blends specifically tailored to better please the palates of deer.

In response, an entire new industry has sprung up almost overnight.  In addition to seed, hunters are buying fertilizers, sprays, and entire arsenals of miniature farm equipment that can be pulled behind ATVs.  These implements include mowers, spreaders, sprayers, tillers, disks, drags, harrows, cultivators, rakes, plows, and scarifiers.

Critics fear that food plots, like feeding and baiting, are leading to a de facto privatization of deer, which are in theory a public resource.  After all, the whole idea is to attract deer and keep them on your land rather than on your neighbor’s land.  But it looks like fun, and hunters tell me it feels more sporting and less artificial than shooting deer over bait.

Tim is a great guy, and I really enjoyed talking with him.  His enthusiasm was genuine and infectious.  If my wife and I owned more than our two small acres, I’d probably be out working on my food plots next spring. 

And that’s one thing I’ll have to say for food plots…  Thanks to guys like Tim, dedicated deer hunters now have a whole new hobby that’s bringing them a lot of enjoyment and relaxation.  In their spare time, they’ve become small-scale farmers.  I’ve talked with many hunters who find great satisfaction in planting and tending their food plots; they seem to enjoy it as much as they do the hunt itself. 

They love seeing more deer on their property all year round, and they generally keep a few trailcams aimed at their food plots to see who’s stopping by for a midnight snack.  Come deer season, of course, these same hunters will be waiting nearby to harvest one or two deer as the deer harvest their final mouthfuls. 

So I guess it’s true what they say.  There’s no free lunch.

 © 2011 Al Cambronne

Awesome George Says: “Don’t Swerve. Hit the Damn Deer!”

Attitude is everything, and having the right attitude
can save your life when you hit a deer.

 The other day I had a great visit with Awesome George Hertzner of Awesome Auto Body in Minong, Wisconsin.  Over 60% of his business comes from deer-car crashes.  Most of the rest comes from people who drink and drive.  He told me he owes his job security to just two things: deer and beer.

For this DEERLAND public service announcement, George wants you to remember just one thing:  “If you’re driving down the road and a deer steps out in front of you, don’t swerve.  Hit the damn deer.”

This isn’t because George wants your business.  He has plenty.  It’s just that he’d rather not see you become earlier-than-expected business for your local funeral director.

When drivers hit a deer, they’re rarely injured.  (The drivers, that is.)  But when they swerve, chances are good they’ll go in the ditch and roll over or hit a tree.  Or, they may lose control and head toward a car in the other lane.  “If you have time to stop,” says George, “then stop. But don’t swerve and risk your neck over a deer—or worse yet, over a dog or a squirrel.  Believe me, I’ve seen it happen.”

George also wants you to stay vigilant, especially at dawn and dusk.  And if you see one deer crossing the road, slow down.  One or two more of its friends could be getting ready to step out onto the pavement.  The next couple months are especially risky.  Deer will be moving a lot, and their little deer minds will be on other things.  The rut is approaching.

(If you’re unfamiliar with that term, I’ll use one often seen this time of year in newspaper stories meant for a family readership.  Deer will soon be entering “mating season.”)

Early spring is bad, too.  Tasty grass is greening up along the roadside.  Later in the spring, does are moving with their fawns.  In summer, biting insects harass deer and push them out of the woods.  Come to think of it, about the only slow deer-crash months for George are December and February.  Oddly, there’s a spike every January.

And if you think you only need to worry about hitting deer here in the north woods, think again.  George owes over 60% of his business to deer because traffic is usually pretty light around here.  That means fewer crashes are caused by other factors.

Percentages are one thing.  But logically, your actual risk of being involved in a deer-car crash is highest in precisely those places where deer populations are highest.  If your daily commute takes you through the suburbs of states like Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, or New Jersey, then you’re at greater risk than someone like me who lives way out here in the woods.

As Awesome George puts it, “Don’t swerve.  Hit the damn deer.  You’re worth more than a deer or a car.  And your car can be fixed.  Your neck can’t.  Your car?  That’s what insurance is for.” 

If you know in your heart that this advice will be hard to follow, then it’s time to adjust your attitude.  Once again, Awesome George has some awesome advice: “Don’t worship your car, and don’t get too attached.  It’s just a vehicle, a tool to get you from point A to point B.  It’s insured.  Cars are like socks.  Be ready to change them once in a while.”

© 2011 Al Cambronne