You may not see them or hear them, but you can usually tell where they have been. They can turn a vegetable garden, a field of crops, or even a plot of Christmas trees into a disaster area.
Deer are the No. 1 cause of crop damage in Missouri, and R. Scott Brundage has spent years trying to keep them from munching on his trees and soybeans. If he has his way, producers will soon be able to spend less money, time and labor in protecting their crops from deer.
Because of extensive damage caused by deer, Brundage installed a specially designed electric fence on his 54-acre agroforestry farm near Harrisburg two years ago to protect white pine Christmas trees, ornamental landscaping trees, black walnut trees and soybeans. After two years, however, deer are still invading his territory.
Although Brundage says there are no signs that deer have jumped his fence, smaller deer have managed to go under the fence and get to the crops. As a result, he wants to modify the current design to create a deer-proof fence.
Brundage, a consulting forester and owner of Wildwoods Ranch Christmas Tree Farm, recently received a $3,000 grant from the Missouri Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Award Program. The grant, to aid in development of a deer-proof fence, was sponsored by the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry.
His goal is to find the most effective way to keep deer out of his field, with the least amount of cost. Brundage says that his current fence already requires less labor, time, materials and maintenance than other fences.
“This can change the face of agriculture,” Brundage said.
Beyond hunting, various means of controlling deer have been used in the past. Netting around trees, repellents, fencing and even dogs are used to keep deer at bay.
Bob Daly, owner of Hill Top Christmas Tree Farm, said that deer are most destructive to his farm during the winter and spring.
“When snow is on, they look for something green,” he said. The result is damaged trees, especially smaller trees.
Daly said there isn’t much he can do about the deer in the winter, but he does take some action during the springtime: He dips and sprays his crop with eggs to control deer. The egg mixture protects his seedlings by creating a hard layer that the deer find unattractive.
“It’s the most inexpensive thing you can use,” he said, adding that it is time-consuming. Other preventive methods, he said, are too costly.
Of all deer-control methods, fencing has proven to be the most common and effective. The only known fence design that is 100 percent effective, however, is an 8-foot woven wire fence or solid wall. Deer cannot go through, under or over such a fence. But an 8-foot fence can be costly, labor-intensive, unappealing to the eye and often obstructive in the planting and harvesting of crops, Brundage said.
Teaching a lesson
Deer prefer to go through or under fences, not over them. Deer are creatures of habit, and electric fences are a way to teach them to stay away. Since they rely heavily on their sense of smell, the purpose of the anti-deer fence is to attract the deer to break their habit.
Deer are attracted to apple juices and peanut butter scents. Scent cups attached to the fence lure the deer, and when they touch their wet noses to the wire, they get a shock of electricity.
“The fence is really training the deer,” Brundage said. “It’s sending a message: Do not go over. Great pain is involved. Stay away.”
Jo Hackman, a vegetable producer, gets permission from the Missouri Department of Conservation to hunt deer as a way to protect her pumpkins, squash, watermelon, tomatoes and cantaloupes.
“It’s not really effective,” she said.
She said other prevention methods, such as fencing, are too costly for her 100 acres in Hartsburg. But she’s interested in the research being conducted by Brundage and said she’d consider using his fence system if it was cost-effective.
Although the grant allows three years for completion of the project, Brundage says that he plans to have a new prototype in place by the fall or this time next year.
As head of the Consulting Foresters Association, president of the Missouri Walnut Council and an active member of other organizations, Brundage says he will easily be able to provide the results of his project to other growers. He says he wants to share what does and doesn’t work and plans to coordinate field days in which people can go to his farm to examine the fence.
Brundage says that if an effective low-cost, non-labor-intensive fence can be designed, there will be two benefits. Not only will producers of high-dollar crops such as Christmas tree farms and orchards be largely affected, he said, but so will producers of row crops and vegetable and flower gardens.
“If the fence can keep deer out, a higher yield is grown,” he said. “Ultimately, producers will feel the impact.”