Scott Nelson and three of his neighbors near Mapes, N.D., have a sunflower crop worth more $400,000 standing in the field in the northeast North Dakota.
They hope they can combine it before flocks of millions of migrating blackbirds arrive later this month.
In the past, Nelson and others have lost entire fields to blackbirds.
Scott Nelson checks to see if sunflower heads have begun to turn yellow - a sign that they can be sprayed with pre-harvest Roundup. The newly labeled treatment makes it possible to combine sunflowers weeks earlier than normal.
"We are doing everything we can to keep that from happening this year," says Nelson, who hosted a tour Thursday showcasing what farmers and North Dakota State University and USDA scientists are doing to try to reduce losses.
Among the practices:
Block planting. They planted 1,000 acres of sunflowers in a block to focus hazing and habitat reduction efforts in one area.
Cattail control. They participated in a USDA funded program to reduce cattails stands wetlands. Thinning out cattails reduces the preferred habitat for blackbirds.
Conservation plots. They enrolled land next bigger wetlands into a federal conservation set-aside program and planted early-maturing sunflowers on the land. They hope the blackbirds will feed more in the conservation plots than the fields.
Hazing. They patrol the sunflower block and scarce blackbirds out of the field with shotguns, rifles and other hazing devices.
Hot bait. USDA researchers are experimenting with poison to kill blackbirds. The challenge is to set up the bait traps so that they only attract blackbirds. If other birds visit the traps, they can't put out hot bait.
Pre-harvest Roundup. They'll spray the sunflowers with Roundup to speed up the dry down of the heads. They hope to be able to harvest sunflowers with a week or two of spraying.
"The sooner we can get sunflowers harvested, the better," Nelson says. "The longer they are in the field, the more the blackbirds eat."
Officials estimate that blackbirds cause and estimated $15 million in damage in sunflowers annually. The problems has gotten worse in recent years, especially in northeast North Dakota where above normal moisture and snowfall has filled up wetlands and increased the habitat for blackbirds.
Farmers and researchers have noticed more blackbird feeding in corn this year, too, says George Linz, director of USDA's blackbird damage research in the Great Plains.
The amount of loss may be surprising, Linz says.