Rats In The Henhouse

The Scheckel family farm out on Oak Grove Ridge, near Seneca, in the heart of Crawford County, Wisconsin, raised a lot of chickens. Our red hen house was built about 1930, with stone wall foundation, wood frame construction, and a dirt floor. The west half of the 12-by-30-foot building had a wood floor raised above the ground. Which meant that beneath the floor boards was a hang out and haven for varmints, namely rats.

We frequently encountered rats eating out of the chicken feeders. They scrambled to the safety of the holes in the floor boards. There was a trap door on one end of the chicken coop. The upper end opened to the area where the chickens lived, but the lower part allowed one to peer below the raised floor.

Dad would shine a flashlight into that lower section, and you could see the rats scurrying around, their beady little eyes reflecting the light. Dad would take the .22 rifle at night, have one of us hold the flashlight, and he would pop off a few of those rats. Dad made sure none of the youngsters was on the other side of the chicken coop, because the bullet would go right out the other side of the chicken coop, leaving a series of noticeable exit holes as it tore away the splinters of wood.

Dad tried rat poison under the crawl space. But there were limitations. You couldn’t let the chickens get at the stuff. It would be counterproductive to poison your chickens along with the rats. You couldn’t set rat traps. Chickens would get in them. Cats and dogs also.

Those welfare rats just had to go. In 1953, when I was 11 years old, we came up with a solution to the rat problem. This was one of the most memorable days on the Scheckel farm. We removed the chickens from the chicken coop. The manure spreader was parked a few feet from the chicken coop door.

The floor boards were removed a few at a time. There was perhaps a foot thick layer of straw and debris that was home and haven for a big bunch of rats. We didn’t know how many.

Slowly but surely, we used pitch forks and shovels to remove the straw and debris, hauling it to the manure spreader. Rats retreated to the far end of the chicken coop. Some rats started coming out the trap door. We were waiting with pitchfork and shovel. We had two dogs; Shep and Browser. They were in for a full workday. Some rats were stabbed with pitchforks, and a few cowered in the corner of the concrete floor section poured a couple of years earlier.

We started laying out the dead rats in rows. We never touched them. Perhaps we’d pick up a dead rat by the tail, but we usually used a shovel for transport. Deeper into the chicken coop we move, taking up floor boards, shoveling straw with pitchforks, digging down to dirt or earth level.

The farther we went the more rats we encountered. Sometimes we’d be chasing three or four at a time. Some made an open run for it towards the nearby cornfield. A few escaped, but not many. These were dirty rotten vermin that killed our chickens, stole their food, and carried diseases. They deserved to die! That was our thinking.

Browser grabbed a rat and shook it silly. Then he dropped it. If the rat  moved, Browser would pick it up again and do a reshake. One vicious rat got a good bite on Browser. We noticed he was bleeding from his lip along the side of his mouth. A little blood didn’t seem to Browser down. A real gamer, my kind of dog, I thought.

We were closing in on the end of the chicken coop. There was no place for Mr. Rat to hide. The action was fast and furious. Pitch forks and shovels were weapons. We saw six, maybe seven rats at the same time. The dogs were barking, chasing, catching, and shaking their prey. We were shouting. Who could believe there was so much fun in this kind of work! Whenever rats appear, we stopped removing straw and debris, and attended to removing the rats. It was full scale warfare or should I say, ratfare.

Finally, after three hours of work, all the floor boards were removed, and all the straw, corncobs and debris was gone. We literally destroyed the home housing a colony of varmints. We counted the rats laid out on the ground a few yards from the chicken coop. The final toll was 87. We felt a fine sense of pride. It was a good day’s work. We had done our duty!

The rats were shoveled into the manure spreader amongst the ticking, straw and dirt that had been their home. Phillip drove the tractor and manure spreader out to the field. It was quite a sight to see those rats flinging through the air.

But now, the hard work of pouring concrete began. Hauling water from the cattle water tank, hauling concrete in 5-gallon buckets from the cement mixer to the inside the chicken coop, hauling rock to drop in the concrete. Ah, but walking on that new floor was wonderful. It was worth all the hard work.

There wasn’t a Redi-Mix concrete truck rolling onto the Scheckel farm. No, we had a portable cement mixer mounted on 2-by-4 skids and powered by an electric motor. Dad bought bags of cement from the Lynxville Lumber Yard. He had sand delivered by truck; the sand had small rocks and pebbles in it. Phillip, Bob and I carried water from the cow tank over to the chicken coop site. 

We gathered rock from down in Kettle Hollow and along roadsides. The rock was placed in the cement to take up space. It was a technique that allowed us to use less cement. Dad operated the cement mixer. He poured water from the pails into the turning cement mixer. He’d shovel in some sand, add some cement. He watched for the right consistency. When it looked right, he’d dump the cement into 5-gallon pails and we’d haul and pour the concrete in the forms.

This was hard, back breaking, drudgery work. Constantly hauling water, carrying concrete to be dumped, adding rock to the poured concrete, and leveling the concrete. But it had to be done. We just accepted it as part of being on the farm. It was our lot in life. We didn’t complain too much, and it wouldn’t have done any good anyway.

But there was a benefit to the labor. The poured concrete was allowed to set and harden for a few days. Then we removed the wooden forms. It was so nice to walk on that cool, gray, hard floor, where previously there was dirt.

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Photo: Fotolia/jodie777

  • Published on Apr 2, 2015
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