Farming For Ducks
Check out how this hunting destination has bagged its own share of success and worldwide fame.
By Tharran E. Gaines | Photos By Habitat Flats and Charlie Riedel
Like the vast majority of farmers in Missouri, Tony Vandemore plants a crop each spring with the hope of reaping a bountiful harvest in the fall. There’s one big difference, however. Vandemore’s harvest doesn’t so much spring forth from the soil. It comes from above, in the form of ducks and geese, as well as paying customers who come from all over the world to hunt waterfowl at Habitat Flats—a hunting operation developed by Vandemore and three partners.
Composed of about 950 acres of tillable land and another 1,500 Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP) acres, all near Sumner, Missouri, Habitat Flats has developed into one of North America’s premier waterfowl hunting destinations. In addition to guided hunts, guests enjoy a well-appointed lodge that provides gourmet meals and other amenities for up to 32 hunters at a time. Consequently, it involves more work than one man can manage alone … even though Vandemore oversees most of the operation and books all the waterfowl hunts.
“I’m fortunate in that I have a lot of good friends who plan their vacations around duck season and help out as guides, chefs, etc.,” Vandemore relates, noting that his wife, Kate, is equally invaluable to the operation for the work she does with marketing and media. “Just as important, though, are the three business partners who share ownership and support, and advise.”
One of those is Dan Daugherity, who farms about 2,000 acres of cash-crop corn, soybeans and wheat just down the road from Habitat Flats’ center of operations and Vandemore’s nearby home. As a lifelong farmer, Daugherity also helps farm Habitat Flats when he’s not managing his own crops. Plus, he oversees all the trophy deer-hunting opportunities offered by the outdoor enterprise. The other two owners are brothers Aaron and Ira McCauley, both practicing veterinarians in the St. Louis area.
Spreading Their Wings
“This is our 10th season in business together here in Missouri,” says Vandemore. “Prior to 2008, when we formed Habitat Flats, the four of us each had separate farms, which were managed for waterfowl, that we shared with a few friends and relatives during hunting season. Yet, it costs a lot of money to do that. So, to offset some of the costs, we joined together and started taking out a few groups for pay. Before we knew it, it blew up to more than we ever imagined.”
Fact is, the 2017 duck-hunting season sold out this past spring, thanks, in part, to an 85% rebooking rate. “Ironically, the fewest number of clients come from within the state of Missouri,” he adds. “We’ve had groups come in from all over the U.S., as well as several foreign countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Italy and South Africa.”
To meet an increasing demand, Vandemore and his partners used much the same business model as Habitat Flats to develop hunting opportunities for duck and deer hunting in Kansas; snow goose hunting in Arkansas; and duck, goose and sandhill crane hunting in Saskatchewan, where they own the hunting rights, but lease properties from local farmers. Like the Missouri operation, those locations also provide meals, lodging, guides, etc.
“It was kind of through necessity that we expanded into the other states and Canada,” Vandemore explains. “We were continually selling out in Missouri, and our clients were wanting to experience other types of hunts.”
The Golden Triangle
A native of Illinois, Vandemore says he began hunting the area referred to as the “Golden Triangle”—due to the presence of two adjacent state waterfowl conservation areas and a federal wildlife refuge—while attending college in Kirksville, Missouri. “That’s how I first met Dan,” Vandemore explains. “I was guiding snow goose hunters for hire on some of his farm ground. Plus, Dan was using his equipment to farm the small acreage I had purchased for duck hunting with some of my buddies.”
“It took a long time for me to get used to leaving corn in the field,” jokes Daugherity, a commercial farmer who also grows 800 acres of corn, 1,000 acres of soybeans and 300 acres of wheat with his father, Jim. “It’s a lot more time-consuming to plant crops on Habitat Flats ground than it is in my own fields. That’s because all of it is planted in strips, which consist of about 80 yards of corn and 40 yards of soybeans. In addition, most of the fields are only 80 to 160 acres in size and surrounded by dikes so they can be flooded.”
How They Do It
Fortunately, the guidance systems on their tractors have made that process much easier. While Daugherity owns several high-horsepower Massey Ferguson® and AGCO® brand tractors, the Habitat Flats partnership owns a 109-HP MF5465 tractor; an eight-row, split-row planter; and a 15-foot batwing mower.
“We normally use the MF5465 and the eight-row planter on Habitat Flats simply because the plots are smaller and require more maneuvering,” Vandemore says. “But if we get behind because of weather, or if we get flooded out, Dan can still come in with one of his tractors and 16-row planters. The bigger issue, though, is that when I need to be planting food plots, Dan has to be planting his own crops.”
In effect, guidance on all their tractors, including the MF5465, allows Vandemore or Daugherity to plant all the corn at one time, leaving strips for the soybeans. A second trip with the planter and early group 3 soybeans, which allows them to harvest the crop earlier than normal, literally fills in the rest of each field. “It isn’t always that easy, though,” Daugherity adds. “We have to factor in blind locations, what the water depth will be in different parts of the field, soil type, etc., when plotting the strips.”
Come fall, Daugherity harvests all the soybeans as early as possible, while leaving all the corn. At that point, the fields are flooded with water from a series of wells strategically located around the properties. If there’s any corn left after the close of duck season, water is drained off and Daugherity comes back one more time with the combine to reduce the presence of volunteer corn the following year.
While soybeans provide some income, the more important role of the crop is to provide open areas in the fields, once they’re harvested, for setting out decoys. The flooded soybean stubble also encourages insect growth.
In addition to the planted crops, Vandemore and Daugherity manage a few hundred acres in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). While they occasionally plant additional species, including millet, buckwheat and grain sorghum on bottomland acres, management primarily consists of mowing the areas at the appropriate time.
“Early in the season, ducks are mainly feeding on bugs and invertebrates,” Vandemore relates. “And bugs do much better on horizontal surfaces than vertical surfaces, which is why we mow some of the bottoms and harvest soybeans as early as possible.”
On the other hand, federal regulations that pertain to WRP management and baiting wildlife state that anything that is planted can’t be manipulated. In other words, soybeans can be harvested, but corn or millet can’t be mowed and laid on the ground. If the grain is left in the field, it has to remain standing.
“It’s pretty easy to make ducks go where you want them to go,” Vandemore concludes. “It’s just kind of expensive. Even though we harvest the soybeans, we certainly don’t break even on crops. It takes ducks and satisfied hunters to make a profit.”
For more about Habitat Flats, see habitatflats.com.