Rodent Pest Control on the Farm

Planning and strategy are keys to keeping vermin away.

Sneaky rat

Mice and rats turn from predator to prey when you adopt some farm cats.

iStockphoto.com/Oleg Kozlov

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With the onset of fall, summer's bounty gives way to an urgent need among animals to seek food and shelter for the coming winter. Rats and mice are on the move. And to the wandering rodent, your farm looks like a deluxe hotel. Proximity of a food source and nesting grounds are prime considerations for rodents about to take up residence. Buildings, feed bins, woodpiles, junk heaps and stacked trash are all highly attractive to rodents. When it comes to providing habitat for these varmints, the farmer is often her own worst enemy.

Rats and mice have been a nuisance to humankind since the beginning of time. The infamous bubonic plague, the Black Death, was caused by fleas that bit infected rats and then passed the disease on to humans. From time to time, nations experience a virtual swarm of rodents that destroy foodstuffs and crops. On U.S. farms, losses from these vermin are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Fortunately, with some basic precautions, rodents can be controlled. 

Have a strategy

A good rodent-control strategy is a simple three-step process. First, deny them food and shelter; second, employ an ongoing control program; and third, encourage all area farms and rural households to institute similar rodent control measures. Since rodents can reproduce exponentially, everyone's help is needed.

Let’s start with habitat denial. Rodents survive and multiple largely through human negligence. Sloppiness comes with a price ... and it can be high. It is estimated that on poultry farms alone, rodents can consume $250 worth of feed for every 100 hens housed per year. They damage structures and wiring, cause fires, spread disease and can prey on baby animals.

Some important steps to eliminate a harborage for rats and mice are:

● Don’t have open and unsanitary dumps on the farm. Bury or burn trash, offal and garbage.

● Stack lumber and building supplies 1 foot off the ground. Never stack wood next to buildings.

● Store feed in metal or plastic containers when possible. Clean up spilled feed as soon as possible.

● Avoid on-farm junk piles and storing old machinery or equipment. These make good rodent homes.

● Rat-proof buildings by using concrete floors and foundations. Use hardware cloth to screen windows, vents, pipes and drains. Check buildings for holes and make necessary repairs. This denies access to rodents and discourages their residency. 

Reduce populations

The second part of a good rodent control program involves reducing existing populations by trapping, predation and poisoning.

Rodents can be easily trapped. Rats and mice follow natural runways. Finding these areas is critical for trap placement. Selection of attractive bait is also important. Rodents go for fish, oatmeal, bacon and sweets. Select a trap location inaccessible to children, livestock, pets and non-target species. Various types of traps can be used, from conventional types to sticky paper. Trap selection should be based on individual and safety considerations.

One of the best ways to control rodent populations is by good old-fashioned predation. The barn cat is an excellent choice. Cats are natural mousers. They should feed almost exclusively on varmints, which sharpens their hunting skills and makes them more effective rodent killers. Snakes, hawks and owls are also natural rodent predators. If you own large livestock, you should have nothing to fear from these animals. Smaller livestock, however, may have to be protected from natural predators. Then, let the predators go to work and hunt and kill the varmints. That's what nature intended.

If, as a last resort, a poisoning program is used to control rodents, it should be used carefully and with great caution. Careful consideration must be given to children, pets, livestock and non-target animals. Poisons are indiscriminate, so use them with extreme caution. Poisons should be placed in those inaccessible spots that only rats and mice will find; good locations are along runways and in their nesting areas. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions before setting out any poisons, and monitor poisoned locations daily. 

Collaboration

Lastly, to be effective, a rodent control program must be a continuous and ongoing collaboration with neighbors. No area should become a breeding ground for these pests. They spread and multiply too fast. The key is cooperation, constant effort and vigilance. Once they gain a foothold, rats and mice can be hard to eliminate. It's better to institute and practice the prevention and control techniques discussed than to wait to be overrun with vermin. Start a good rodent control program now. It's well worth the effort.

Steve and Debra Edwards own and operate Aspen Hill Farms in Boyne City, Michigan, producing meat rabbits, poultry, medicinal plants and vegetables. Products are processed and direct-marketed to area resorts and restaurants. In 2003, the farms’ rabbit meat was used in an award-winning recipe from Food and Wine magazine.