Before the San Juan Bioenergy plant broke ground at Dove Creek in September 2007, Southwest Colorado farmers learned one thing:
Sunflowers aren’t just for snacking on. They produce enough energy to power a truck.
Four years after that groundbreaking, San Juan Bioenergy has failed and shuttered its facility, even after switching its production plans from sunflower biofuel to sunflower food oil. Farmers are still growing sunflowers to reach outside markets, however, and in those four years, they’ve learned something else:
Sunflowers aren’t just for filling up trucks and grocery store shelves. They produce enough energy to power an entire herd of elk.
Farmer Tom Schear has about 300 acres of sunflowers planted along Squaw Point southwest of Dove Creek this year.
Those fields aren’t next to Schear’s home, which is just across the border, a mile or so into Utah, along Bug Point. He’s given up trying to plant sunflowers by his home.
“They pretty well wiped out 80 acres over here,” the dryland farmer said about elk consuming his crops.
“We’ve had more problems with the elk than the deer,” Schear said about wildlife eating his sunflowers in Utah and Colorado. “We’ve always had deer around here, but the elk — we haven’t always had them around. We didn’t have a lot of elk down in this area until the last 10 or 12 years maybe. But the sunflowers we plant are a new thing, and the elk seem like they really like those sunflowers. We’ve had fields that were just about destroyed by elk.”
Colorado Parks and Wildlife — a state agency that formed recently when the Colorado Division of Wildlife and Colorado State Parks merged — hopes to take a bite out of all that crop damage.
Parks and Wildlife has implemented a two-year, $250,000 project to study alternative fencing techniques designed to keep deer and elk out of sunflower fields, said Matt Hammond, district wildlife manager for Parks and Wildlife’s Dove Creek District.
“What we’re working on is a fairly big research project,” said Hammond, who worked with Durango-based Parks and Wildlife Senior Researcher Heather Johnson to develop the project.
The traditional, tall, post-and-wire, game-proof fence that Coloradans see along some fields can be an expensive burden for farmers, Hammond said.
“A high fence — the cost would be huge,” he said.
The permanent, high fences also create barriers to deer and elk migration corridors, Hammond said. The alternative barriers that Parks and Wildlife is testing can be removed from fields when they aren’t needed, such as when sunflowers aren’t planted.
Parks and Wildlife is testing three types of alternative barriers, Hammond said. The first is an electric fence, the second is a “wing” fence, and the third is a biological spray.
The electric fence is 7 feet tall and has five strands of electric rope, Hammond said. The rope is only about 0.25 inches thick, and the electric wire is embedded in the rope.
“It’s been done before on whitetail, and I believe on mule deer, but it’s never been done on elk,” Hammond said about the electrical fence test.
The fencing was erected in early July, and it’s too early to say if it will work, Hammond said.
“That’s why we’re doing the research,” he said. “It’s hard to say. So far we have seen a few elk go through the wire.”
Sunflowers and weeds growing into the fence have shorted it out in some spots, so crop rows next to the fence had to be cleaned, Hammond said.
The wing fence is a poly net barrier similar to the red fencing material used to create safety barriers around highway construction sites, Hammond said. The 7-foot-high wing fence is black.
“You put it along the edge of the field where the deer and elk migrate into the field,” he said. “They hit the fence and then follow it a ways and then don’t go into the field.”
A wing fence can reduce costs for keeping wildlife out of crops, Hammond said.
The biological barrier uses Plantskydd brand repellents, Hammond said.
Plantskydd is designed to keep animals such as deer, elk, moose, rabbits, squirrels, beavers and voles out of agricultural fields, landscaping and forestry projects, according to Plantskydd’s website, www.Plantskydd.com. The product is considered environmentally friendly and suitable for use with organic crops.
“It’s a powdered blood is all it is,” Hammond said. “It’s cow and pig blood. We mix it in a tractor sprayer. We apply it on the border (of the field). We apply it on a 60-foot band on all sides. Elk — to us it doesn’t smell, but to them it has a bad smell and a bad taste.”
Plantskydd is applied every 30 days during the growing season, Hammond said.
Parks and Wildlife is conducting the sunflower experiment on five fields, Hammond said.
Each field has four test plots: one for electrical fencing, one for wing fencing, one for Plantskydd and one for “control.”
The “control” plots don’t receive any special fencing. That way, Parks and Wildlife can compare results from the three experimental fences to what farmers use now.
“We’ve been telling the public — both the hunters and the farmers — that we were going to continue to look for alternatives to the game damage,” Hammond said.
CANNONS AND KILL PERMITS
The fencing alternatives represent a shift from techniques Parks and Wildlife has used to help prevent damage, Hammond said. One of those techniques is hazing, and another is kill permits.
One type of hazing uses a propane cannon, Hammond said. The cannon, which makes a loud boom, is set to fire at intervals throughout the day or night to scare off wildlife.
Another type of hazing uses loud cracker shells fired from a shotgun. Farmers have to fire the shotguns, which can mean going outside at odd hours of the night to scare off wildlife.
“Hazing to try to keep animals out of fields is very time consuming,” Hammond said. “Farmers are working from sunup to dark, and going out at 2 a.m. to keep animals out of the fields is not fun.”
Kill permits are a last-resort tool, Hammond said. The permits allow farmers to kill deer or elk that are damaging crops.
“If the hazing is not working, then we’ll issue a kill permit for so many hours,” he said. “They can go after them 24 hours a day. The idea is to kill that quota, and hopefully the other animals will leave the field.”
Meat harvested through kill permits is property of the state, Hammond said. It is donated to needy people in the area.
RIGHT TOOL FOR THE JOB
Even if the three experimental barriers prove effective, they might not provide a solution for all farmers, Hammond said. For example, electric fencing is expensive, so many farmers might not want to use it. But it could help if it targets specific areas that are heavily hit by elk.
Using an alternative barrier also could protect one sunflower field but push elk into another field, Hammond said. That’s why Parks and Wildlife is experimenting with the alternative fencing techniques and why the agency wants to be selective about using them.
“We know that none of these tools are going to work for everybody, but if we can use them on the highest damaged areas and show that they work, then we can let these farmers continue to grow sunflowers,” he said. “Some of these guys have had to quit growing on certain fields.”
Schear is one of three farmers participating in the Parks and Wildlife project, Hammond said. The other two are Dan Warren and Eric Guynes.
“We’ve been having game damage for approximately the past five years on sunflowers,” Hammond said. “So I know which farmers have been planting sunflowers in the past and had problems.”
Since the fields with test plots aren’t next to his home, Schear said he hasn’t kept a close eye on the fencing project. He did say sunflower fields without elk-proof fencing can suffer significant crop damage.
“Where there’s not fences, there’s been quite a few elk in some of them,” he said. “They eat the top off where the sunflower is, and the head falls on the ground where they eat that. And you can see it right around the edges where they’ve been to it.”
Parks and Wildlife’s Habitat Partnership Program, which utilizes funds from the sale of big-game licenses, and the agency’s Wildlife Auction and Raffle Fund, which raffles hunting licenses to raise funds, helped pay for the fencing research project, Hammond said. Other sources of funding include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation; and the National Wildlife Research Center, a Fort Collins-based component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Reach Russell Smyth at 564-6030 or [email protected]