Friday, December 10, 2010

What's new at the Farm? Dealing with pests

Last week I was looking out my window remarking as to how warm and beautiful the weather was. What a difference a week makes. Then it was 44˚F and raining and now it’s 22˚F, but at least it’s sunny. I think we’d rather have sunny and cold than warm and damp any day. At least I would.

Last week I also wrote about rats. Last weekend, I’d had enough of the smell of dead rats in my workshop so went to cleaning and vacuuming to try and get rid of the smell. I’d describe the odor as nauseating. Friday night and much of the day Saturday was spent in my workshop where everything is now clean and organized but I couldn’t find any culprits no matter how hard and thorough I looked. So Sunday I decided to work on Peggy’s bay where she keeps her car in the winter. 

I pulled out everything in front of her car including scraps of landscape fabric, a wooden barrel full of long handled tools, a copper bird bath, a barbeque grill, an old woodstove, several bird feeders, two cast iron radiators and many “needs repairing” projects which I will probably never do. I really don’t know how this stuff accumulates. I sorted, vacuumed all and put back in some sort of order, but still, the odor lingered. There is in the corner of the garage, two water pipes which run from my boiler into the house and back. As the pipes drop in elevation coming out of the garage they are housed in a wooden box we built when we installed the system. Sure enough, at close examination, something had drilled about a 2 inch hole in the wood and the smell was pretty strong in that area. 

I pulled the box apart, and there, nestled in between the heat pipes were three dead rats. They had taken insulation from the walls of my workshop (they drilled holes in the plywood to get at the insulation) and built a nest right between the pipes. As for the smell, whenever we  got a south breeze the wind would enter the hole and spread the odor through the garage for us all to enjoy. After removing the rats and vacuuming out their nesting spot, I reinsulated the pipes and put new boards over the water pipe box. Done, or so I thought.

The smell continues to haunt us in her bay but I think that will go away in time. It’s much better than it was. In my workshop however the smell was still quite strong. By now I’ve cleaned everything to within an inch of its life and am about to give up. But wait, I can’t do anything in my workshop with the current smell so it’s off to find the source. The smell is definitely strongest over by the furnace. Perhaps it’s under the pile of kindling wood – nope -  not there either, but at least it’s cleaned and organized now. Finally, in an act of desperation, I take my flashlight and get down on my hands and knees and search for the cause of the odors. Bingo – found him! A half grown rat underneath the furnace; dead as a door nail and he smells like he’s been there a while.  Once he was disposed of, the odor dissipated and perhaps now I can get something done!

So by now you’re probably thinking what does this have to do with the farm? Rats are surprisingly clever and adaptive animals. They have been poisoned, trapped and persecuted throughout the ages and yet they continue to survive, and in many instances thrive. They live around us because we supply them food and shelter, largely undisturbed. Birds feeders provide a food source as most are surrounded by seed thrown out  by the birds. If you have domestic animals that eat grain – well, there’s a free food supply.  Rats often visit animal feeders at night when we’re not likely to bother them. I’ve snapped the lights on after dark to see rats scurry from the chicken pens. They live under the barn, in greenhouses, in and around compost piles and anywhere out of the weather that’s close to their food supply. 

Trapping is effective for a while but they learn fast! If they step over a fellow rat in a trap on the way to the food bar they learn what not to step on, no matter how tempting. Control without poisons is usually a lot of work for a limited amount of control, but there are some things you can do to at least make it harder for them to live in close proximity with us humans. Rat control, of course, presents a problem when using poison; we want to kill the rats but not the animals that feed upon them. One dose of poison in my garage and I found seven dead half grown rats – all inside and all disposed of properly. I didn’t however find any adults ones. Last week a reader wrote me about using a “Rat Zapper”; I think  I’ll try one of these in the henhouse; they come with lots of good recommendations.

All feed and grain gets stored in metal trash cans. I’ve had rats chew through plastic ones to get at the feed but never metal ones. I like to feed out exactly what the birds will eat before night fall, so the rats don’t have free range all night. Of course if the birds are made to clean up their feed before nightfall there will be considerably less waste anyways. Having the birdfeeders out away from the house exposes feeder visitors to predators. I’ve seen bobcats and owls hanging out around our feeders looking for a tasty meal. Peg and I watched an owl one afternoon. He didn’t take a second look at the birds, but when a mouse came calling; well, you know the rest of the story. Mice, rats and squirrels seem to be on the favorite foods lists of many predators. 

The storage area for winter root vegetables in a root cellar or cold storage should be designed so critters can’t gain entrance. We store our squash in an unheated room in the house and I’ve seen tooth marks in the skins already. Our two cats are marginally effective. They don’t actively hunt them but rather catch the half grown and relatively stupid ones; mice that is. Cats generally won’t attack rats, especially full grown rats. 

Here at Johnny’s, we make the greenhouses as inhospitable as possible. We roll up the sides for the winter and let the cold air in. We clean up any crop wastes and seeds that were spilled or dropped during the harvest season. We empty all compost bins and store the bins well away from the buildings. Anything that remains in the greenhouses is stored up on pallets so there’s no room under anything to build a nest and stay the winter. Our compost area is at least 400 yards from any buildings so what critters do live down there won’t venture this far to gain entry and are controlled by natural predators.
In summary, take away their food supply and deny them a place to overwinter where it’s warm, or at least near the food supply and you’ve gone a long way to reducing their numbers and discouraging them from taking up residence in your house, greenhouse or barn.

Until next week, Brian


Journeys said...

To help with the smell, put out some vinegar in some open bowls around the area. It is amazing how effective it is in getting rid of odors. Had a dead mouse in the cellar some time back and it worked great.

Also if you have some sensitive areas that are hard to control use peppermint and spearmint sprays. Rats and mice hate the smell. Doesn't kill them but they will move along.


Brian said...

Good to know; after 2 weeks there's still a foul odor in the garage. I'm pretty sure I got all the dead critters out of there. I'd rather they not take up residence in the first place than having a control issue like I did this year. I'll let you know how it works out in a future column.