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Corn irritant keeps pheasants away

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP)--Regulators are stepping in to address a conflict between two of South Dakota's biggest money crops: corn and pheasants.

The Environmental Protection Agency will allow farmers to treat seed corn with an irritant that keeps pheasants from eating the seed before it can sprout.

The state Department of Agriculture requested an emergency exemption to allow the use of Avipel seed treatment. Farmers apply it either dry or wet to seed before it goes in the ground.

"It doesn't hurt the pheasants in any way," said Brad Berven, administrator of the pesticide program within the Agriculture Department.

"It irritates their stomach and they appear to learn pretty quickly how to recognize treated seed because they stay out of the stuff that's been treated."

Seed loss to pheasants is not new, but the damage can be especially severe when the pheasant population is large as it has been in recent years, Berven said.

An emergency approval for Avipel was given last year, too.

Pheasant populations the past two years have been the largest in more than 40 years, according to the Department of Game, Fish and Parks. The 2007 preseason population was estimated at 11.9 million birds.

The corn crop also has been growing. The ethanol industry spurred a 2007 crop that covered 4.5 million acres and produced 544 million bushels. The 2008 crop was a record 585 million bushels from 4.4 million acres.

The cost of Avipel treatment averages about $5.50 per acre, said Berven.

EPA approval is needed for anything that repels or kills a pest.

"Because this product doesn't have full approval from the EPA, the only way to get it approved is through the emergency exemption process. And we're saying the economics of this are such that we can justify there is a significant economic loss to the producers due to the increased pheasant population," Berven said.

The Agriculture Department conducted an unscientific online survey of farmers last year to gauge the extent of losses.

In the seven counties with the highest response rate (Beadle, Brown, Edmunds, Faulk, Potter, Spink and Walworth), each respondent reported losses from pheasants. The seven counties also have some of the highest pheasant densities in the state at more than 200 birds per square mile, the department said.

Twenty-two percent of respondents overall reported a range of 21 to 50 percent yield loss, and 26 percent indicated a range of 51 to 75 percent yield loss.

Losses were greatest in fields next to Conservation Reserve Program acres, shelterbelts, and roads. The field's outside rows also showed the largest yield losses.

Farmers who replant incur extra production costs that they estimated at $66 to $80 an acre. Yield losses also are possible because of the delayed replanting.

Berven said survey results provided some basis for estimating statewide losses in its request to the EPA.

"Next year we're going to have to try to do a scientific survey, in case it isn't approved and we don't get full registration by then--unless the (pheasant) population really falls off. But it looks like this winter was good to the pheasant population again, and the numbers are looking good again, I think. So, we'll probably be preparing to do it again next year, if we need to."

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