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Rice farming is for the birds

TAGS: Crops
Y_Hirosan/Thinkstock dusk-and-rice ear
Rice production could improve in Texas, no thanks to the birds

The classic Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds," based on a book written by Daphne du Maurier, premiered in 1963 as a modern horror story that frightened movie goers, garnering impressive box office revenues of over $11.4 million, a substantial amount for the time.

In the story, a wealthy socialite is trapped in her summer home by flocks of gathering birds intent on breaking into the home to wreak havoc on the human victims inside. 

Ask any rice producer in Texas or Louisiana and they will tell you they too fear birds, but for a very different reason. Birds, especially the broad family of avian known as blackbirds, love to feed on rice seed, and perhaps worse, on the heading crop of rice as it matures, especially in the second or ratoon crop as it reaches time for harvest.

The problem is especially dramatic for rice fields located near the Gulf of Mexico, because the area is either a southern migration zone in the fall or winter months, or a fly zone extensively large numbers of birds use in their annual migration to other areas.

"Many of the farmers in Matagorda County in Texas and surrounding rice areas simply won't attempt a ratoon rice crop [in the same year], because the bird population is so high and the damages so great, they just don't feel it's worth it,” reports Michael (Mo) Way, professor of Entomology and rice specialist at Texas A&M Research Center in Beaumont. "Years ago I had a graduate student who worked in Matagorda County and he found an average of about a 15-percent reduction in the ratoon crop because of the birds."

Way said back in the 1980s and 90s, farmers in the area relied on shotguns and scare canons to help control birds in their rice fields, and the input costs were so great that it led many producers to just give up on their second crop.

"The ratoon second rice crop is more susceptible to bird damage because there are so many more birds begining to migrate from northern areas and join the local population. Earlier in the growing season, during the first crop, you can realize some damage, but as the season progresses, especially around the time harvest of the first crop begins, the birds start to concentrate on what crops are left, meaning more birds are focused on remaining fields that are not harvested," Way explained.

Rice repellent bird seed (AV-1011) has been around for a number of years, Way said, which has helped rice farmers minimize the number of early planted rice seed in their fields. But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been evaluating a new foliar product for repelling birds during rice heading through harvest period.

The new repellent from Akrion Life Science is currently under evaluation and review and could be approved for either Section 18 emergency use or a full Section 3 label authorization as early as next season, provided EPA approves the product.

Way says the new repellent, if approved, would be most effective after aerial application, when blackbirds present the greatest threat to either an unharvested first rice crop or a ratoon crop.

"Starting as early as next week I will be managing a research trial of the new product for the purpose of collecting data. But the EPA period for public comment has expired effective earlier this month. I know that Arkion reps, interested producers and others, have been encouraging rice producer comments to help the EPA in their decision process. Exactly when the federal agency will reach a final decision on labeling, I can't say; it is a lengthy process," Way said.

Mike Brinkley, a rep for Arkion, says he and others have been collecting letters from growers who say they wanted to have their voice heard concerning the need for the new bird repellant and to show their support for its registration.

Producers and Extension personnel in and around Matagorda County are reporting red-winged blackbirds are currently converging on rice fields in large numbers, and that worries growers. Early on, the birds prey on rice by pinching the grains in their beaks to squeeze out the milky substance inside. But they may also feed on the grains during dough stage, and may break, shatter, or consume panicles while perching on the plant.

"The cost of control with firearms can be high [for rice producers], as much as $46 per acre," reports Stephen Janak, Colorado County AgriLife Agricultural Extension agent who also services Matagorda County.

He confirms that some producers are unable to harvest a ratoon crop at all due to bird damage.

The problem is not limited to coastal rice fields in Texas. It is a common problem experienced in Louisiana rice country as well.

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