Ask Farmer Pete - Dealing with Predators
What kind of predators do you deal with on the farm?
Mostly, we deal with a lot of avian predators that like to go after the chickens. There are a lot of different species of birds of prey, but we mostly have problems with barred owls, barn owls, and hawks. We also get canines around too, such as coyotes and foxes. In recent years, we’ve had a decline in foxes and a rise in coyotes. This is due to the fact that they reintroduced coyotes in to the area and they like to eat the foxes. But we still have problems with both of them.
Raccoons and possums can reach the chicks when they’re young, but don’t really bother them when they’re older. We put the chicks out on pasture when they’re three weeks old and sometimes they’ll nest too close to the mesh part of their enclosure. Raccoons and possums can actually reach in and grab them before they realize what’s going on. There are a few other animals such as weasels and snakes that can be considered predators but we don’t have any real problems with them. I like snakes, they’re my friends. I’ve seen black rat snakes around here but they’re hopefully just killing a bunch of rats. They’re not a real problem.
Which of your livestock are most at risk to predators?
Definitely the chickens. They’re basically at risk from the time they’re born. Rats can kill up to 100 chicks a night if they get into the enclosure. They don’t eat them right away, they just drag them out and stuff them in their holes. Then I’ll get up in the morning and find a hole full of dead chicks. You can tell if something has happened because you’ll typically find a few injured chicks and as a whole, they’ll seem stressed out. Rats are ruthless, they’re pretty mean little guys. And then once the chickens are grown, they’re at risk to all the predators I mentioned before.
The turkeys can be at risk too, but we keep them in the chicken tractors for the first eight weeks to help protect them from predators. Once they’re out on pasture, the birds of prey won’t really bother them because they’re too big and coyotes don’t mess with the electric fence. The cows are extremely tough animals. The only way they could be hurt by coyotes is if one gets to a newborn calf. But the calves are almost always in close range of the mother and she’ll start bawling in distress, which will bring the other cows running. Usually when I hear someone say a coyote killed one of their calves, it’s more likely that the calf died and then a coyote started eating it. Cows are very protective of their young and they would run off pretty much anything. Mountain lions may be a problem for the cows, but I haven’t seen any around here. The pigs are about the same as the cows. Pigs will squeal and scream if they’re in distress, which brings all the other pigs around to protect. They’ll start snorting a low, deep, short growl in chorus and they’re able to back off any problem by intimidating the threat . I’ve never had an issue with predators eating our pigs or cows.
What methods do you use to help keep predators away?
There’s not much you can do when it comes to birds of prey. It’s a war of attrition. You start with larger numbers and you have to expect losses. Birds of prey are protected so you can’t kill them. There’s no hunting season for owls or hawks. I am starting to use what I call Purple Martin Gourds. A Purple Martin is a sparrow-looking bird that migrate from South America in the springtime. They come in numbers and they’re looking for good housing in early spring. I took some gooseneck gourds this fall and hollowed them out once they were dry to make houses for the Purple Martins. I’m going to hang about 20 up in a selected location and hopefully they make them they’re homes. If you get a big enough colony of Purple Martins, they will fend off birds of prey. They’re great for flies too.
The cows and pigs are in electric fencing and I do keep the egg layers in electric fencing too. Coyotes and foxes won’t go through the fence. They sense the pulse in the wire and they don’t mess with it. The meat chickens are completely closed in and pretty well protected. The only problem they have is with the raccoons and possums when they’re young. Sometimes a hawk or an owl will get into the chicken tractor and they can’t get back out. I’ll find them there in the morning with one dead chicken and the rest are all huddled in a corner. It’s just catch and release, so I let them go.
You can hunt and trap coyotes legally during season with the proper license. I typically set traps because I don’t have time to sit around and wait to shoot them. Jillian and I will live trap rabbits and put them on a reserve. And we have friends and family that like to shoot the groundhogs. We used to smoke them out of their holes but we don’t have the time to do it that way right now. The groundhogs and rabbits only bother the crops though, not the animals. You never want to eliminate a species or population in your area, only do what you have to do.
What other kinds of predators bother the crops?
Besides the groundhogs and rabbits, it’s mostly deer. Any herbivore is going to be a threat to your crops. Electric fencing is all you can do. Tim takes preventative measures before he plants too. When he’s prepping the field, he puts up an electric fence, even if nothing is growing yet. That way it trains the deer to stay out of that area. Deer don’t have the best eyesight, but they can see something obstructing their walkway and if they get zapped once, they typically won’t come back. You’re basically training the animal not to go in the field. If you wait till the crop is already growing and then put the fence up, it’s too late. The animal will know there’s food there and it will hop your fence. Raccoons are always a threat for corn. Tim typically just counts his losses but he does trap some too. Not many people hunt raccoons anymore.
If you find a problem with your livestock, how can you tell which predator is responsible?
If a significant number of chickens are dead, it’s most likely that a fox or coyote got to them. They’ll just kill and play with them. It’s a way for them to practice their hunting skills. They may drag a couple off and eat them, but they typically just kill them and leave them there. What I’ve found with coyotes and foxes is that once they find a hunting ground, they tend to come back. They’ll kill one night, rest the next night, and then come back the night after that. It’s best to get out in front of the problem right away once you know they’ve been there. Birds of prey will usually only kill one chicken and sit in the coop and eat it. Hawks will pick the neck completely clean. So if there’s many dead, it’s probably some kind of canine but if there’s only one or two dead, it’s most likely a bird of prey.
Have you ever had a significant loss of livestock?
It’s funny that you ask that because I just had coyotes get in the other night and kill about 20 chickens. This rarely happens, but the cold and hunger drives the predators closer to the home. On average, I lose at least one chicken a day and there’s not much you can do. Having larger numbers will help in the survival rate. I’ve actually seen a hawk hunting my chickens. Once one chicken sees the hawk, they’ll all panic and gather in a group. Then the hawk swoops down and it’s like watching a bomb go off - the chickens will all scatter trying to get away from the hawk.
The most significant loss I’ve had is probably chicks. I’ve lost 100-150 chicks in one night. That’s how I learned about the rats and the threat that they pose. You’ve just got to be prepared for it. Seal up the enclosure and kill the rats any way you can before you start putting chicks in. Rats find the feed pretty quickly and then they find the chicks.
Do Pup and Holdem help protect the livestock?
I hear my dogs going off in the middle of the night all the time. They hear things that I can’t hear. If they’re faced with it, they’re certainly going to protect the livestock. They’d run off pretty much any predator. I’ve seen them chase hawks, they seem to enjoy it. I’ve seen Holdem chase a coyote before too. They’re very protective, they understand that the livestock animals shouldn’t be eaten. When it comes to the foxes and coyotes, it becomes an issue of dominance. They’re genetically related so when foxes and coyotes come into our area, it’s a threat to their domain. If they caught one, they’d kill it. They’ll chase rabbits and possums and that’s some of the best food they can get. I’m sure if they could catch a deer, they’d probably kill that too. They understand that the livestock aren’t to be messed with unless I specifically tell them to do something. It’s mostly Pup now that Holdem is older, but he still gets the concept.
There has been research that shows that farmers can also use falcons, llamas, and donkeys to protect various areas of the farm. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve definitely heard of using those animals. If you know a falconer, I’d say definitely bring them around. They might be few and far between though. I’ve heard that donkeys and llamas can act as guard animals. You can use guinea fowls as an alarm animal too and I think some people even hunt with ferrets. You can definitely incorporate multiple species into a flock for protection. You’re supposed to use multiple species anyway, so why not a donkey or a llama? We just don’t really need something like that. Our cows will fend off pretty much anything, they don’t need any extra protection. I’d be surprised if they ran away from a bear. All mamas turn into mama bears when it comes to their kids. In our case, our cow Little Ear will run through anything for her calf - a fence, you, a wall. Usually I check on the calf right after it’s born to make sure everything is ok but she started plowing straight towards me and didn’t stop. It’s a mother’s instinct to protect so it really wouldn’t be worth it to have a donkey. My presence is daily, and usually multiple times a day. It helps having a human presence all the time. And the dogs can hear and smell and cover a lot more ground than I can. This time of year, coyotes are getting hungry and they’re a little more comfortable getting closer to humans and closer to that threat. So donkeys and llamas could probably help, but we just don’t need them. But if you know a falconer, definitely invite him over. That’s something I’ve always wanted to get into and hopefully someday I will.