DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 11 – Tony Vandemore Joins the Show to Discuss Habitat Changes Caused by Spring Flooding (Part 1 of 2)

Vandemore discusses habitat conditions going into waterfowl season

© Michael Furtman

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast, the only podcast about all things waterfowl. From hunting insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America. We bring the resource to you, the DU podcast with your hosts Chris Jennings and Dr. Mike Brasher.

Chris Jennings: Today we've got a special guest, Tony Vandemore, owner operator guide at Habitat Flats. Tony, welcome to the Ducks Unlimited podcast.

Tony Vandemore: Hey guys, thanks for having me.

Chris Jennings: No problem. No problem. I think... Main reason why we reached out to you here is we wanted to kind of get a feel for the flooding impacts that you've dealt with and I think everyone got a good glimpse of it on social media. You were posting some pretty good stuff, but what we really want to talk to you about is kind of the impacts on the vegetation, on the habitat in your area with being in such a high volume migration area. We really just want to get a feel from that, from you, from on the ground. So can you kind of just describe and kind of play out the process of the flooding this spring and well into summer?

Tony Vandemore: I mean, first and foremost I'd just like to say that this is just from our little part of the country. I mean it was devastating and tragic for majority of the Midwest really, I mean a lot worse than what we had in here. South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois. It was a very, very, very big widespread flood event 2019. And it started for us at the end of March, we kind of started battling it and then really it hit its peak at the end of May. And that's when the majority of the levees along the Missouri river failed. Everything we have at our home lodge, all those levees were overtopped, which is... I mean it's horrible to see. I mean, we're not able to get any crops into that ground. I mean, it was just a devastating thing for everybody along in these river bottoms. The only blessing in disguise I guess or... You got to try to find a positive in anything, is that it took place primarily May and June. And the water got off our area anyway. And I can't speak for other, because a lot of areas there's still water on it, but it came off at the right time of year. Really though, I think most people when they look at moist soil management and... You get an incredible response just by taking water off at the right time of the year.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tony Vandemore: But it's hard for people to do. I mean, I think they take it off way too early and they're left with a bunch of non-desirable plants out there. They're wetlands. Whereas this, it kept water on until the middle or end of June. So when came it off... I mean the moist soil response has been incredible.

Mike Brasher: And so Tony, this is Mike. Do you... I'm assuming you incorporate moist soil management in some of your habitat work there. Was the timing of the water coming off, was that similar to what you normally do?

Tony Vandemore: It is. I mean at the end of the year I'm trying to get my management plants to respond, and typically the earlier you take water off, the more your woody type vegetation, say smart weeds you get. And the later you take it off, the more grasses you're going to get. So I'll do different farms at different times.

Chris Jennings: You know, one quick question kind of related to that as well is overall the potential impacts, I mean what are you seeing area wide? I mean you're in the golden triangle of Missouri, you've got Swan Lake, National Wildlife Refuge, Grand Pass and Fountain Grove right there. What are you seeing basically landscape wide around you that could potentially impact migration this fall with basically a lack of food or lack of certain types of habitats?

Tony Vandemore: Well there's certainly going to be a lack of agricultural crops. I mean, beans and corn and all that. I mean, there's personally nothing planted in the bottom, anywhere to speak of. But that being said, it's very wide. I mean, field after field after field as far as you see, is incredible moist soil habitat. Probably better than I've ever seen it.

Mike Brasher: Wow.

Tony Vandemore: Just because it kept... The water came off at the right time. I mean, nobody really had to do anything.

Chris Jennings: That's interesting. Yeah.

Mike Brasher: What are the primary species of grasses and sedges whatever else that you see coming up that you're getting pretty excited about having out there?

Tony Vandemore: It's been primarily what I'm seeing is a very good, smart weed response. Excellent yellow nutsedge and excellent wild millet, I guess what I call wild millet. Some people call it barnyard grass or whatever. It's always so interesting to me that the seedbed is so dynamic. I mean there's tens of thousands of acres of that plant that are fields that have been in agricultural production and spray for... well, since the last big flood of 93. I mean if they had had a weed in them and you get one year with flood water on them where you can't get in there and it's 100% smart weed nutsedge and wild millet. It's incredible.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. It's remarkable, isn't it?

Chris Jennings: Yeah, it's an impressive how just prolific all those moist soil-

Mike Brasher: And then on some of those areas where the water came off a little bit later, what are you seeing or what have you had to do to try to get a good response out of those areas?

Tony Vandemore: Well, I mean there's some areas... definitely we have a lot of it when the water came off late and eventually it would've came up in natural moist soil foods. But I wanted to spur it along. I planted four pallets of millet and buckwheat, just chipping around out there and arrangers spreading that stuff and sticking it into the mud. They've had an excellent response to that. They are staying phenomenal. We've had just enough rain to give it plenty of moisture and plenty of sun. A lot of times it seems like, at least in years past, when something like this is taking place and I've had to go back in and try to plant millet or buckwheat or whatever in July it ends up burning out. Goes from flood to drought. And that hasn't been the case this year. So even the natural, the natural foods, the foods that we were able to get planted, everything looks phenomenal.

Mike Brasher: And you're seeing a similar response on some of the adjacent properties or throughout that area. The moist soil response is pretty good.

Tony Vandemore: It's probably the best moist soil I've seen ever. I mean all across the area just because that water stayed on and really, I mean people did not have to do a thing, they didn't have to worry about the boards. I mean... Ag type stuff is pretty easy, you plant beans, you spray them, and there's not much to it. In moist soil, your wetlands, areas that typically don't flood, they're work. I mean they're a ton of work, because they're WRP, Wetland Reserve Program. They're wetlands for a reason. Because you can't get them dried out. Just have to control invasive species and that sort of thing. But a year like this, it's just... It was kind of the perfect storm for good moist soil production.

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Mike Brasher: So Tony, when you see this kind of response, this just phenomenal moist soil response, and you know that those plants produce all sorts of groceries for ducks, how does that influence your thinking about future habitat management? Because you're a businessman, right? And there's some economics in all of this. How does that influence your thinking? Are some of those things going through your mind and maybe you think about doing things differently in the future or... What goes through a mind of someone like you?

Tony Vandemore: Yeah, absolutely. And it's certainly not just because of this year, but this is kind of mind my mentality. I've been managing duck stuff for a long time and it's all been through trial and error. I mean, my uncle helped on a couple of refuges in Illinois, learned a lot from him. But what you really learn is just get out there and do it. I've made a ton of mistakes and hopefully learn from them. But the biggest thing I've learned is when I was younger, you've got to plant food. You've got to plant millet, you've got to plant buckwheat. You want to disc up every square inch of it and plant it with something because that's going to be better. It's something you planted. It's going to be better than what's there. When in reality, I mean the natural moist soil foods are smart weeds, the natural millet, nutsedges. Ducks have been living off of that since the beginning of time. The good thing about those seeds is it's kind of survival of the fittest. They've been genetically altered for thousands of years. So if you plant millet like I did this year, the end of July, first part of August. Man, it looks pretty. Well now you catch mid-August flood and that's going to look like a moonscape. It's dead, it's gone. Whereas that natural stuff a lot of time and it gets through those flooded beds. It ends up still producing.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. I'll back up here a minute. Just for clarification. When you mentioned genetically altered, we're talking about genetic alteration that occurs naturally. Some of those plants survive, and those that don't survive, they don't get to persist through time. And so that's that genetic alteration. That's just kind of interesting that we use those words in those different ways. But yeah, that is a pretty cool phenomenon that you're seeing there.

Tony Vandemore: I've moved away from planting millet and all that stuff through the years as I've done Marion properties and I primarily do natural moist soil when I can because like we just said it's survival of the fittest. It's been there for years and it's the best stuff there is, but more importantly I think this gets overlooked a ton. You can manipulate natural vegetation, so your wild millet, your smart weed. You can manipulate it with a brushoff. Where if you plant it, you can't touch it.

Mike Brasher: Right. That's right.

Tony Vandemore: Something that I've really noticed and I think gets overlooked, is how much those ducks are keying in on bugs and invertebrates. You cut them open the first three weeks of our season and they're crammed full of bugs and invertebrates. And your bugs and invertebrates are going to do better at horizontal cover than they are vertical cover. At least from my experience. You would certainly know a lot more than me.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. So building off of that a little bit. Tony, what we've learned over the decades of all the research that we've done is that ducks do indeed benefit from having a diversity of habitats to exploit. Because as you mentioned, that diversity of habitat provides all sorts of different types of foods that are important from nutritional standpoint, whether it be energy, amino acids that make up the proteins and all sorts of minerals, whatever else. Ducks need those sort of diverse habitats. And I know that's something that you're going to be aware of and you're going to be keen to. And I'm not terribly familiar with all the different types of habitats that you manage, but I'm assuming in some years you might have some agricultural-based habitats. Is that correct?

Tony Vandemore: Yeah, yep. Yeah, we do. Absolutely. But in the grand scheme of things, it's a very small fraction of the ground that we flood. The vast majority of it is moist soil.

Mike Brasher: And out of curiosity, I don't know if you have enough information to really... data to inform this. Do you see sort of a different response of the birds between those different types of habitats? Is the competition of the birds that you harvest in those different habitats similar or-

Tony Vandemore: Yeah, for sure.

Mike Brasher: Okay, so it's different.

Tony Vandemore: Ducks' nutritional needs are going to change based on the weather, from what I've seen. They're keying in on... I mean they'll eat bugs and invertebrates and then you're catching them getting colder. They might be going to dry fields agriculture, they may be going to flooded agriculture field, but then as soon as you get that warm up, they're going back to the moist soil. And they've lived off it for years. And that's the stuff that's going to get them out in the spring, it's still going to be there. As far as the species of ducks, I mean you're going to kill everything in a moist soil field that you're going to kill in a flooded agricultural field. I mean they're all using the same stuff. Now, obviously your little what I call summer ducks, I mean Pintails and Teal and Dabble and all that. They go south a lot earlier because they're not as hardy as Mallards are. But they're all eating all eat the same stuff. And I think for me as I guess a waterfowl manager per se, the biggest thing I always tell myself and always remember is, you can't put all your eggs in one basket.

Mike Brasher: Absolutely.

Tony Vandemore: There's nothing we can plant or do to make a farm good 60 straight days.

Mike Brasher: That's right.

Tony Vandemore: You have to have diversity.

Mike Brasher: Yeah. And you can apply that philosophy at... You're basically talking about diversifying your portfolio. And that diversification is important for the returns that you see. That's one way of looking at it. But that diversification is also important for meeting the needs of the birds. And that's something that, sort of as a scientist, as someone who's sort of enthused by all these details and what does a bird need, that's one of the other ways that I kind of like to see that diversification of a portfolio. And so it's pretty cool that you see it that way and recognize the benefits of that.

Tony Vandemore: Sure. And you know, moist soil management goes... I mean just it touches on so many different things than deciding what you're growing, at least to me. I mean the good thing with the natural foods, you can manipulate them like I said, so you're getting better bug and invertebrate habitat. But I always try to look at what my farm looks like from the air. What do our farms look like from the air? When I was kid, 30 years ago, you'd see the grand migration, the grand passage. I mean they'd be coming during the day, just V after V after V coming. But anymore to me it seems like most of them are migrating at night and you can have all the food in the world, but when they're flying over, if that moonlight isn't lighting up that water, they're not stopping. So anything for me in the moist soil areas, the natural stuff, anything under six inches of water, I'm waiting until it matures and mowing it pancake flat. Cutting it off at ground level, that sod is piling up. It's loading up with bugs and invertebrates when you're flooding it. It's showing good water from air when they're migrating. And once you get them stop, they're going to stick around.

Chris Jennings: We don't want to keep you on too much longer, but man, we really appreciate you joining us today. We just really appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

Tony Vandemore: All right, see you guys. Thanks.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DEU podcast. Be sure to rate, review and subscribe to the show and visit www.ducks.org/dupodcast for resources based on today's topics, as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.