Bird damage can turn into a widespread challenge in many cornfields. Just knowing what to expect and preparing your crop rotation ahead of time can be enormously helpful.
Shredded husks and brown or blackened kernels are usually tell-tale signs of bird damage. Birds feast on the still-soft kernels during early grain filling period, and holes where kernels have been pecked away are left vulnerable to infection by molds and other pathogens. So not only does this result in a direct yield hit from the loss of grain, but an ear and plant left predisposed to further damage from development of ear molds and rots, and even mycotoxins, which could render the crop unusable. Redwing blackbirds and crows are the usual suspects.
Much depends on the weather, but earlier maturity hybrids are often the most severely affected, so it’s important to mix in some hybrids a few days later in maturity yet still within your relative maturity range. Areas close river bottoms can be more severely impacted, because birds’ migratory paths often run along waterways. Border areas closer to the shelter of the woods or a barn are most likely to suffer, although damage can occur throughout the field.
During years with closer-to-ideal growing conditions, the cob tip can protrude beyond the husk, making the grain more accessible to birds. Hybrids with a longer shank may also encourage birds by letting the ear hang out or down, giving the birds an easy perch.
What can you do ahead of time? It helps to look for hybrids that have a shorter shank and hold the ear upright (although this in itself presents some risks of kernel sprouting if water collects and sits in the husk) as well as hybrids that have good husk cover that keep the ear tip well covered. Some report that tighter husk coverage slows drydown, so it’s all a matter of weighing the trade-offs.
An even more effective strategy is simply to mix it up. Look for a few hybrids within your maturity range that fit your soils and nutritional needs (for example, you may be looking for a hybrid that has kernels with more floury starch or higher plant fiber digestibility). Birds are often attracted to one specific hybrid within the field, and other hybrids in the immediate area with even slightly different pollination dates or kernel maturity can be completely unharmed.
Diversified planting is a practice we already encourage (using our Feeding Pack program to offer financial incentives), because using different hybrids within your relative maturity range is good insurance against all types of stress. Even increasing the number of different hybrids on the farm by one or two can have a dramatic effect. No two hybrids are going to handle stress the same way, and it’s quite likely that they will be at slightly different stages of development when the problems (drought, flooding, pest damage) arise. Even devoting a section of the field (or half the planter boxes) to a hybrid that starts pollinating just after a long dry spell ends can be a huge advantage.
If you know of a consistently at-risk field or portion of a field – perhaps along the treeline – where you have noticed damage in the past, you may want to try using your latest RM hybrid in this area, or splitting the planter boxes between two different hybrids.
So remember: As with many challenges in farming, you will need a multi-pronged approach. There is no perfect hybrid or silver bullet that protects you from damage. Diversification is a key piece of insurance. Break up your monoculture as much as possible – even by varying hybrids. Break up the field into smaller strips with different hybrids within your RM range. Even vary the planting dates if you can. Since early corns are more likely to be affected, plant your latest-maturing and latest-planted hybrids near wooded areas, waterways, and barns. If you know bird damage is a concern on some of your fields, ask your seed rep for the hybrids with tighter husks and more upright ears. King’s AgriSeeds is planning to do much more extensive evaluation in the coming season both of ear orientation (does it hold the ear more upright at grain harvest?) as well as husk coverage.