Farmers and sandhill cranes have complicated relationship

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
Sandhill cranes converge on Sunnybook Farm as they prepare to leave Wisconsin for warmer weather down south.

Just a few decades ago, sandhill cranes were a rare sight to behold in Wisconsin. But since then, their population has grown exponentially and they're causing economic distress to crop farmers. 

Matt Gies, a corn, soybean and wheat farmer from Berlin, said the cranes appear in droves once the snow starts melting in spring. By the time planting season rolls around, up to 12 cranes stay on his farmland and pull up the corn seeds once they're planted. He said the peck marks are visible in the ground where the seeds were eaten.

"There's quite a few of us (farmers) around here who are pretty irritated with them," Gies said. "The neighbor across the road from my farm – in the early spring, when all the snow's coming off, he'll have as many as us on his side too."

Gies said there's not much he can do about the sandhill cranes. Farmers can use noisemakers, such as propane cannons that make loud bangs, as well as scarecrows and fake predators to scare them off. There's also Avipel, a liquid or powder bird repellent that coats the seed and makes the cranes temporarily sick to encourage them to move elsewhere.

But Avipel can quickly become expensive for small farmers. Gies said he pays about $1200 for three gallons of Avipel to treat 85 acres. It often doesn't work like it should, Gies said, since he still suffers from crop damage despite using the repellent. He said the cranes will even pull foot-tall corn plants straight out of the ground and fly away with them in their mouths.

"It's better now because we use Avipel, but it's still bad enough," Gies said. "You see a definite yield loss from them."

Brian Madigan, an agronomy sales manager at Country Visions Cooperative in Plymouth, said farmers need to be constantly aware of sandhill cranes in their fields, but the cranes are often towards the hidden back areas of fields where they know they won't be disturbed. 

A pair of sandhill cranes make their way across a field of winter wheat in Adams County on a gray November day. The cranes are at more than double their ideal population, said the DNR, estimating there are more than 100,000 sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, with their numbers growing significantly since the 1980s.

Farmers should avoid staggering their crop plantings because it creates a longer feeding time for sandhill cranes, Madigan said. He also said Avipel is expensive, but it's a necessary expense that goes into added protection for the farm.

"If you plant the seed deep enough and it comes up fast enough, you can get ahead," Madigan said. "That makes a big difference. (But) you can't always control that."

Sandhill cranes are at more than double their ideal population, said Taylor Finger, who is the Department of Natural Resources' migratory game bird ecologist. There are more than 100,000 sandhill cranes in Wisconsin, and their numbers have grown significantly since the 1980s.

Finger said when they settle on land to nest, it's nearly impossible to get them to move elsewhere. The US Department of Agriculture Wildlife Service will only step in to remove the sandhill cranes when the farmer has exhausted all other methods. While some other states have a fall hunting season on the cranes, Wisconsin is not currently looking to legislate one into law, Finger said.

"Because those birds are not a huntable species in Wisconsin, those birds either have to be donated to the Fish and Wildlife Service for educational purposes, or buried or incinerated," Finger said. "There's not a whole lot of better options other than what's out there."

But despite all the issues with them, Richard Beilfuss, president of the International Crane Foundation based in Baraboo, said farmers should try to coexist with sandhill cranes through using Avipel because the cranes also offer pest management by eating insects and other unwanted creatures.

Rich Beilfuss, President and CEO of the International Crane Foundation

Beilfuss offered some ideas to motivate farmers to be more rehabilitative of cranes on their farmland, like tax breaks for using Avipel and other deterring products since the costs add up quickly. He also recommended incentives to farmers who adopt wildlife-friendly practices in planting trees and using no-till ag methods to create more wildlife-friendly fields.

"Please encourage your representatives to help farmers find economic solutions to crop depredation, so they don’t have to make the difficult choice between saving their crops and saving wildlife," Beilfuss said.

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David Gneiser of Berlin rebutted Beilfuss' comments and said he is a proponent of a managed sandhill crane hunting season in Wisconsin. He claimed the USDAWS received 265 complaints of $1.9 million in damage to crops in 2013 and the situation has not been resolved since then. He also said an uncontrolled overpopulation leads to rapid spread of disease among the cranes.

"Beilfuss posted the choice of choosing between crop depredation and saving wildlife. That is a false choice," Gneiser said. "The correct choice is gaining added revenue through managed hunting, and controlling the crane population down to sustainable numbers. Fewer but healthier wildlife. ... That is truly a win-win."