Whitetail deer are a significant economic threat to row crop production in Alabama. While his specialty includes crop insect pests, Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist Scott Graham has been dealing with reports of deer damage and listening as growers search for solutions.
“Alabama is blessed with a beautiful landscape, from the sandy beaches of the Gulf to the Appalachian Mountains in Jackson County,” Graham said. “However, much of this landscape results in smaller fields. For example, the average cotton field in Alabama is approximately 21 acres.”
Often surrounded by woods on at least three sides, Graham said these small fields are perfect safe havens for deer to feed in the evenings. In these protected areas, deer can browse and damage thousands of seedlings in a single evening. To address these deer issues in the state, the Alabama Extension crops team conducted a survey with farmers. Through the results, the team look to get a better understanding of affected crops, damage done and strategies to mitigate losses. To date, 58 farmers representing 36 counties have responded to the survey.
Alabama crops had significant damage by whitetail deer during the 2021-2022 growing season. Deer caused economic damage on the following crops:
- 17,653 acres of cotton
- 10,490 acres of soybeans
- 4,987 acres of peanuts
- 3,915 acres of corn
Other crops with notable damage included sweet potatoes, grain sorghum, wheat and rye. Injured crop acreage for these secondary crops totaled 705 acres.
Graham said there were 37,750 total acres affected—an average of 317 per farmer.
“For reference, the USDA State Agriculture Overview reported an average farm size of 213 acres in 2021,” Graham said. “This issue is not only widespread, it is very consistent. Ninety-five percent of respondents said deer were a problem every year.”
Survey results showed deer caused an average of 33% yield loss. However, farmers reported losses ranging from 0 to 100%. The total losses reported by respondents was $10,932,195.95. The average loss was $289.59 per acre, ranging from $23 to $1,200 per acre.
Additional challenges related to whitetail damage include equipment issues, time losses, crop susceptibility to damage and replanting expense.
Current Mitigation Strategies
“Farmers are using many different control methods on the farm, but each of them have the same answer when we look to them for solutions: nothing works,” Graham said.
Some farmers apply for permits that allow deer to be harvested in fields during the growing season. However, Graham said this strategy seems to be fruitless. Many other options are not feasible for several reasons, including affordability and effectiveness.
“One thing that we do not want to do is bring attention to a major problem without any solutions,” Graham said. “While we do not currently have many, one Alabama Extension regional agent has done some demonstration work across the state with promising results.”
Eddie McGriff has had success planting sunn hemp as a buffer or border trap crop for deer. Sunn hemp is a summer legume with prolific growth, even under intense deer pressure.
A demonstration with Nick McMichen, a farmer in Cherokee County, produced positive results in 2021. During previous seasons, McMichen had a 40-acre field that consistently only produced on approximately 20 acres because of the high deer pressure. In 2021, a 40-foot trap crop border of sunn hemp was planted on the entry end of the field. During that season, approximately two acres were lost as deer fed primarily in the sunn hemp. In order for sunn hemp to work as a trap crop, it must be planted before the cash crop. This is done so that it is growing and attractive to deer while the cotton crop is being established.
During the 2022 season, McGriff conducted research with Mike Tate in Meridianville, Alabama.
“Mike planted the sunn hemp at the same time as he planted his cotton,” McGriff said. “While it did provide a buffer during the growing season, the sunn hemp wasn’t established before the cotton was in the ground. Even with a later-than-ideal planting, Mike said the trap crop was somewhat effective but believes it would have been more effective if he was able to plant the sunn hemp earlier.”
McGriff said this year they plan to use electric fence in conjunction with sunn hemp on the side of the field where deer enter from the woods. Future research will explore ideal border size as a single deterrent, as well as ideal border size when combined with an electric fence.