“Four and twenty blackbirds” might make a dainty dish for the king, but when it comes to your farm, you’d like them more if they just “flew the coop.”

And rightly so.

A look at the quantity and value of feed that birds peck from stored feed and feed bunks reveals they cost you far more than the “sixpence” mentioned in the classic nursery rhyme.

Just how much are birds stealing from you? Here’s a look at some numbers.

 New survey data

Last fall, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) investigators reported the results of a bird survey they did on commercial dairies in Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin.

Their results, published in the November 2012 Journal of Dairy Science, are a step forward in understanding the magnitude of feed losses caused by birds on dairies. Here are some key findings from the survey:

• Birds especially like your farm in the winter. Estimated bird numbers, feed consumption by birds and fecal contamination by birds were all greatest from January 1 through March 31 and lowest from July 1 to September 30.

• Starlings steal the show. Among bird species reported on dairies, European starlings were the most common and most destructive species identified.

• A bird in the hand… equals feed loss in the other. This is no surprise, of course, but the more birds you have, the more it’s going to cost you. Dairies reporting no bird problems spent $4.92 on feed cost per hundredweight of milk. In contrast, dairies reporting bird populations greater than 10,000 spent $2.07 more on feed cost per hundredweight. (Please see bar chart at right)

No cheap chirper

In the late 1960’s, feedlot researchers put some numbers on how much a starling could eat. They found that a starling weighing 85 grams — that’s less than a quarter pound — could eat about 2 pounds of feed per month. Today, at a feed cost of 13 cents per pound of dry matter, that equates to 26 cents per bird per month.

It doesn’t seem like much until you multiply that 26 cents across 1,000 birds. When you do the math, you see that 1,000 birds gobble up $260 worth of feed in just one month. Across an entire year, that’s $3,120 worth of feed.

The USDA survey also puts some estimates on the annual cost of feed lost to birds:

• Dairies reporting 1 to 1,000 birds lost $9,399.14 of feed to bird damage annually.

• Dairies reporting 1,001 to 10,000 birds lost $22,794.26 worth of feed.

• Dairies reporting more than 10,000 birds lost $64,401.51 worth of feed.

Blackbird blues
According to Kansas State research published two years ago in Human-Wildlife Interactions, starlings preferred to eat the energy-dense ingredients (i.e., starch) in a feedlot ration. If they like the starch sources found in feedlot diets, chances are they like the starch sources in your dairy diets, too. These feeds are some of the most expensive ingredients in your ration, as you well know.

There’s another problem, too. When birds “peck” and choose what they want to eat, it can alter the composition of the diet fed to your cows. The extent of this problem depends on the number of starlings or other invasive birds present on your operation, as well as where they are feeding from (i.e., stored feed versus feed at the bunk). However, if you’ve ever had a bird infestation equivalent to the likes of the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock classic, you understand this can make an impact on the nutrients your cows are actually consuming.

Burgeoning bird populations also affected shrink levels on farms responding to the USDA survey. Dairies harboring 1 to 1,000 birds lost 4.2 percent of their feed supply to spoilage. That figure increased to 5.2 percent for dairies reporting populations of 1,001 to 10,000 birds and 9.3 percent for dairies with upward of 10,000 birds.

Bird-control strategies differ in terms of their cost and effectiveness, but now you have even more incentive to find a method that works for your operation.