Companion Planting of Sunflowers in Vineyards for Pest Bird Management

Progress report for FNC21-1314

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $25,670.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Walker Homestead Farm & Winery, INC
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Kristy Walker
Walker Homestead Farm & Winery, INC
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Project Information

Description of operation:

As it relates to this grant, between the three farms we have 4.5 acres of vineyards and 1.5 acres of sunflower. Before the grant, two to the three are new to cropping and to sustainable practices.


An expensive and labor-intensive practice of vineyards is to net the vines close to harvest to deter birds. That said, birds still make their way under the nets and peck through the nets at the grapes that are close to the surface.  Damage from the birds allows secondary infections to establish in the clusters rendering them unusable for making wine. The nets also compromise quality of the grapes by causing physical damage themselves allowing secondary pathogens to establish. Nets make it difficult for spraying and mowing. Last season, the Walker Homestead failed to net the vines, but with a sunflower backdrop to the vineyard, discovered that the birds preferred the sunflowers to grapes and ignored the grapes. We propose a study across three distinct farms to determine if companion planting of sunflowers next to vineyards along with one application of avian spray is a more effective method to managing avian defense. Our proposal supports sustainable agriculture, as we believe our bird management approach to be ecologically sound, more profitable, less labor, and socially responsible for Integrated Pest Management (IPM), wildlife preservation, and is a holistic/systems approach to farming.

Project Objectives:
  1. Evaluate the effectiveness of companion planting sunflowers for bird control in vineyards.
  2. Compare overall labor and profitability between netting and companion planting of sunflower for bird control in vineyards.
  3. Abstract farmers’ perceptions of pros/cons of the two options
  4. Share findings through podcast, videos, and presentations at annual farmer conferences.
  5. Measure adoption rate of sunflower companion planting for bird control in vineyards.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • John Barber - Producer
  • Chris Larsen - Producer
  • Kristy Walker - Producer


Materials and methods:

Selection of sunflower type agreed to by the farmers, considered options such as seed size number 3-4, and height tall enough to monitor bird penetration next to vineyard. We planted three pounds of sunflower seeds per acre. This project supports each farmer to purchase a used 2-row sunflower planter on 30 inch spacing so to support seed planting 1/4 of field patch every 2 weeks from May through June for two growing season. Project also provides for the sunflower seed, fertilizer, and one application of avian spray, on the theory that one initial spray deters the birds from learning of the taste of the grapes and keeps attention directed to the preferred sunflower food source. Reason for multiple sunflowers planting is to ensure flowers are in bloom prior to grapes ripening and during their peak. 

Our study will compare cost/time of netting vs sunflower plantings and farmers’ perception as to the advantages and disadvantages of sunflower plantings adjacent to vineyard as a method to control birds.  Additionally, the study will measure overall profitability of these two options, taking into consideration any additional earnings from the sunflowers (i.e., u-pick, agritourist event).

Data collected once each growing season:

  • Plot size of sunflower field
  • Position to vineyard
  • Number/cultivar of vines
  • Type/Cost fertilizer
  • Cultivar/Cost of sunflower seeds
  • Earnings from sunflower
  • Sunflower planting dates
  • First bloom date of each planting
  • Number of vines in nets and un-netted
  • Hours spent netting/un-netting
  • Harvest weight of netted and un-netted vines
  • Weather observation by week

Data collected most days at the point of approach of harvest:

  • Measured Average Brix /Date of grapes in vineyard
  • Bird penetration estimate per netted / un-netted vine (daily) during peak of harvest
  • Type of birds
  • Birds present in sunflowers
  • Hawks present in vineyard

Maps of planting plans in submission's media folder.

Barber Planting Map 2021Larsen Planting Plan 2021

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 On-farm demonstrations
1 Tours
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Other educational activities: Podcast presentation. We had 683 listeners to that podcast.

Participation Summary:

15 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Companion Planting of Sunflowers in Vineyards for Pest Bird Management 2021Companion Planting of Sunflowers in Vineyards for Pest Bird ManagementMay 7, 2021 – Interviewed in a smallfarmsustainability's podcast,  episode titled ‘Sunflowers in the Vineyard’. We had 638 listeners to this podcast episode. In this episode Joe Hannan, Iowa State, University Extension and Outreach Commercial Horticulture Specialist, interviewed Kristy Walker, with Walker Homestead, and discusses sunflowers used as a way to detract birds from the grapes in the vineyard.
( ) (683 listeners) 

August 2, 20211 - ‘Virtual Nights of the Wine Table’ is a monthly virtual chat with members of the Iowa Wine Growers Association, where Kristy Walker talked about the study, shared were we are in year one, and adjustments we are planning for year two.    

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:
  1. New to sunflower/row crop, one farmer did not realize the need to borrow equipment through multiple plantings/week control that needed to be mapped with other persons schedules, weather as well as the cadence of the vineyard. Investment in tillage equipment is underway.
  2. Other farmer had severe deer pressure and will be putting in electric fencing to protect the sunflowers in year two.
  3. Third farmer will be doing a 50% netting/non-netting comparison to have a stronger sampling for comparison.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations

Information Products

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.