By Kara Lynn Dunn
Discouraging wildlife from damaging crops is a constant challenge for Dan Henry of W.D. Henry and Sons at Eden, N.Y. “We’re always dealing with wildlife — from young transplants lost to woodchucks in the spring to birds damaging sweet corn in the fall,” says this fifth-generation farmer. “And deer eat just about everything.”
While deer account for nearly half of the estimated $58 million annual crop damage by wildlife in New York state, blackbirds can ruin $50,000 worth of sweet corn overnight. In a 2014 survey of New York vegetable growers, 84% reported bird damage with an estimated 16% crop loss.
The birds are drawn to ripening corn between silking and kernel development — the moisture-rich milk stage. Damage is unsightly and can lead to ear mold and microbial contamination, making the crop unmarketable.
Henry’s 100 acres of sweet corn, wholesaled throughout the Northeast, represent 20% of the farm’s income. “We expect some loss; after all, we’re working in Mother Nature. But the low-margin business that farming is makes wildlife damage less tolerable,” he says.
Field-testing bird deterrents
Henry teamed with Darcy Telenko, Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable program specialist, for a New York Farm Viability Institute-funded field trial testing bird deterrents. “The goal is to reduce damage, thereby increasing yield and protecting quality,” Telenko says.
For Henry, the small-scale field trial produced good results. However, the practicality of Mylar balloons, inflatable air dancers and spraying must be evaluated for commercial-scale farming.
• Mylar balloons can be reused and may last all season, compared to helium balloons that lose their shape in a matter of days. But, Henry says, “labor is an issue with the balloons that need to be constantly moved to be effective.”
• The air dancer deployed at Henry’s was set on a 10-minute on-off cycle from before sunrise to dusk. “The air dancer worked in the 10-acre field we could reach with electrical cords. But the cords pose an obstacle for equipment, and we can’t run power to 100 acres,” he says.
• Methyl anthranilate, sold as Avian Control Bird Repellent, was calculated at a cost of $72.25 per acre (sprayed twice at 32 ounces per acre) in 2015 trials funded by Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education. Spraying and air dancers successfully deterred birds from sweet corn fields that year, with up to a 19% yield gain and $418 more revenue per acre.
Bonnie’s Photo ImageryUP IN THE AIR: Dan Henry and Darcy Telenko found air dancers to be moderately effective protecting sweet corn, but placement and access to power was problematic.
“Spraying is the most economical and quick option for commercial growers,” Henry says. “We can use standard equipment. However, timing is critical. Application must be made at the right time to be effective.”
Henry’s go-to choice is good management plus a mix of deterrents as needed. Propane-powered noise cannons are deployed every year. Field spraying is added if birds begin gathering in significant numbers. Since he mechanically harvests sweet corn, detasseling isn’t an option — even though it removes bird perches.
“I must stay constantly aware of my fields. If a problem begins to develop, I can identify it and respond quickly to mitigate it,” Henry says. “Birds have the potential to do a lot of damage and do it fast. Ideally, we harvest before they have the opportunity to get at it.”
Markets play a role
“When the market is good, price is up and demand is high, as soon as the corn matures, we’re picking,” Henry says. “In a slow year, an abundance of product in the market may mean one more day in the field for the birds to get it. The market is a very real piece of this challenge.”
“Success is highly dependent on application timing, placement and crop maturity. The absolute best practice often involves a combination of tactics to discourage wildlife activity before they begin feeding,” Telenko says.
For more help, check out the Extension-based Information for Wildlife Damage Management.
Seminar at Empire State Producers Expo
On Jan. 18 at 10:45 a.m., Telenko and Ken Wise of the New York State Integrated Pest Management program will host a seminar, “Minimizing Wildlife Impacts in Vegetables by Utilizing Repellent Tactics,” at the Empire State Producers Expo in Syracuse, N.Y. The program will also include a grower panel. Go to nysvga.org for more details.
NYFVI is a farmer-led nonprofit that invests in innovative projects to increase the success of ag production enterprises, protect farm-based natural resources and produce measurable farm-level results. Visit nyfvi.org for more information.
10 tips for discouraging wildlife
Consider these tips from Cornell’s Darcy Telenko for reducing wildlife crop damage:
• Employ a mix of deterrents, such as habitat modification; exclusion fencing; scare devices including shiny tape strung over the crop, distress call audio recordings and scarecrows; repellents; toxicants; trapping; and shooting.
• First though, check for permits and licenses that may be required with deterrents such as sprays, trapping, shooting and management of protected species.
• Check wildlife toxicants for potential risk to livestock, pets, people and other wildlife.
• Calculate cost-benefit opportunities of methyl anthranilate at $36.25 an acre; Mylar hawk-eye balloons at $10 each; air dancer at $200 plus electrical/generator cost; detasseling 5,000 square feet about two weeks prior to crop maturity at approximately $84.40.
• Where possible, eliminate wildlife habitat options near susceptible crops by reducing brush, tree line vegetation, woodpiles and junk areas.
• Provide alternative food sources to divert wildlife from corn — for example, delayed plowing of early sweet corn varieties, oat stubble or wheat stubble until after corn harvest reduces waste grain for birds.
• Plant specific areas of wildlife food crops as lure crops.
• Deploy measures in early morning and late afternoon, when wildlife feeding is most active; learn optimal timing for applications.
• Watch for damage in all crops. For instance, blackbirds damage corn, sunflower, sorghum and oats in milk and dough stages. Grackles damage corn, fruits, melons and citrus. Cowbirds damage sorghum, millet and sunflowers.
• Consider corn hybrids with long husk extensions and thick husks.
Dunn writes from her farm at Mannsville, N.Y.