by: Clifford Mitchell

High input costs make every available resource on an agricultural operation very valuable to the landowner. Efficiency has become an increasingly important part of a manager's vocabulary. As costs rise, controlling lost value is a good goal for many operations.

In some cases, challenges to the “game plan” could be weather, disease outbreak or a four-legged critter that will negatively impact the operation. Feral hogs were brought to this country by Spanish explorers and were once a beneficial part of the food chain for early Americans, but as time went by this early staple have become a large problem for some landowners.

“Feral swine is really not the right word. Wild pigs is a more appropriate term to describe these animals. The feral hog is just part of the equation,” says Billy Higginbotham, Extension Wildlife Specialist, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

At one time, wild hogs were confined to several states. Different reasons have caused populations to migrate and change over time.

“Forty six of the lower 48 states have wild pig populations. Some of these populations are due to their popularity for hunting and illegal clandestine efforts were used to move them to different areas,” Higginbotham says. “There is not enough predation pressure to control populations. A few small pigs less than 20 pounds could be taken, but other than human pressure there is not much to control populations.”

“We have had wild pigs in Texas since the 1600s and from 2006 to 2010 our population doubled. We went 400 years where we hardly noticed them to 21 percent growth annually for four years. It backed off with the drought, but not as much as you would think,” says Mike Bodenchuk, State Director USDA Wildlife Services.

Damage from wild pigs can come in a variety of ways once populations congregate in certain areas. Crop losses and property damages are something that comes to mind for most, but losses due to disease could also impact the operation. As humans spread out, these critters can have an adverse affect on non-agricultural property as well.

“Most agriculture damage is to improved pastures, winter annuals and to high value crops like peanuts. Wild pigs carry 15 different diseases and can indirectly affect commercial swine operations if they come into contact with confined domestic pigs because of disease transmission. They can also cause cattle to test false positive for brucellosis, which could cost a rancher a lot of time and money re-testing the herd,” Higginbotham says. “You don't think about swine vehicle collisions or their rooting behavior tearing up golf courses, cemeteries or private landscapes. Probably the biggest threat is bacteria loading in the waterways. A lot of species can contribute to that, but wild pigs are a specific threat because they migrate up and down waterways. They need water to drink and wallow to cool off.”

“Wild hogs impact every system there is. They can spread diseases to domestic livestock and impact water sheds,” Bodenchuk says. “They can be really harmful to rice fields because they shatter the grain and wallow until they break the levy. It's our job to help the landowner control these populations.”

Behavioral patterns and different age groups sometimes throw landowners off if there is a problem or not. Each day could cost a lot of money in the wake of a wild pig epidemic.

“Some of the damage we see is age specific. Little pigs don't root. You could have two sows, each with a litter of eight, and see very little evidence. All of a sudden in nine months you have 18 rooting. If 10 pigs live in a four square mile area, it's sometimes hard to notice them until you plant wheat or rye grass then it seems like you have a population explosion on your hands,” Bodenchuk says. “Population growth is slow the first 24 months after that time it can get out of hand real quickly. Wild pigs have three litters every two years. From two sows, in 33 months with no mortality you could be looking at 1,400 pigs.”

“You can have a considerable wild pig population and never see one in the daylight. They are nocturnal, very rarely will you see them, but you will see the evidence,” Higginbotham says. “You have to know what you're looking for, the easiest way to prevent damage is to get after it before it starts. You should be able to see some sign; tracks, wallow in the mud or other damage. Enact those control methods at first sign. We have four legal methods of control in Texas: snaring, trapping, shooting and catch dogs.”

Today, labor resources are limited on most operations. Utilizing available technology could help landowners save time in the fight against a wild pig damage. Many landowners may not have the tools or know how to get the job done.

“We have to get information to the landowners so they can be successful. Our goal is to help them control populations as economically and efficiently as they can. A $100 game camera will reduce the amount of time it takes trying to locate wild pigs and determine their behavior patterns. Never set up a trap until you know where the pigs are and how many you are dealing with,” Higginbotham says. “Most landowners get frustrated because they are not using the best methods of control. Corral traps are more successful, but most still use the small box type traps because they are portable. Corral traps aren't very portable and if damage continues you may have to re-bait that trap, build a new one or move the existing one because of behavioral changes. When landowners utilize the wrong control methods, it turns into a bigger problem and it's time to get help.”

According to Bodenchuk, Wildlife Services is a service based program and will only come on the property with a landowner invitation where the worst problems exist. “We are funded by a cooperative effort to help control wild pig populations. This allows the landowners to help themselves,” he states. “Our goal is to eliminate 90 percent of that population in those areas. If we just eliminate 50 percent the problem will be back in six months.”

Control methods may sound harsh to opponents of agriculture. These methods are used to help landowners keep damage costs low and protect their property. Efficiency is again a key word for those involved.

“Obviously, our benefit/cost analysis get higher with more valuable crops, range land is the lowest at about a three dollar return per dollar spent. Rice and peanuts can get as high as $14 or $15 dollars per dollar spent. Overall, we average around $11 return per dollar spent. Our research shows if we can eliminate numbers this year it will also impact next years crops too, so our estimates are pretty conservative,” Bodenchuk says. “Just because we might shoot them in a corn field doesn't mean they aren't living in the pasture next door. Aerial shooting from a helicopter is most economical in controlling populations or getting them back to manageable numbers. Our effort has to be two-prong though. We have to educate the landowner through outreach programs to control that population when we're gone.”

Utilizing control methods in the proper manner could also turn into a revenue source for some landowners. Generating revenue from wild pigs is a common theme.

“A lot of landowners manage deer or other wildlife for recreational purposes. Wild pigs have no season and there should be little tolerance for wild pigs in this scenario, which could lead to another source of revenue,” Higginbotham says. “The number of pigs you're dealing with will tell you how big to build your trap. Texas has over 90 buying stations that will buy live wild pigs. Trap design will change a little if landowners plan to take live pigs to one of the buying stations. These traps will need to be designed where landowners can load pigs easily onto a trailer.”

Some forms of control protect property, such as: golf courses, orchards, vineyards or high value crops, but do little to decrease populations. These methods of control also come with an expense to landowners and may not always work.

“Mesh fencing is being increasingly used to try and keep wild pigs out. There is a cost in putting that fence up to keep wild pigs off certain properties and reduce access to protect high value areas,” Higginbotham says. “This will limit access, but it does nothing to change wild pig populations and no fence is a 100 percent guarantee to keep them out.”

Like most management tools continued education likely means the difference between success and failure. Utilizing up-to-date research and control methods could keep numbers manageable for landowners. Certain challenges exist with every situation and landowners must be persistent in the effort to control wild pig populations.

“We have to do outreach education to help landowners control populations and keep the problems from getting worse. There are challenges in areas where there are multiple landowners dealing with small acreages. It is kind of hard to control for one landowner when his neighbors want to hunt wild pigs or keep them around for some reason. It is amazing the impact on populations a concentrated effort can have,” Bodenchuk says. “We take out about 25,000 wild pigs a year which is one percent of the Texas population. We're not going to eliminate them, but can control problem areas. There are several methods to control populations, we have to do our best to get the landowners the information they need to keep populations low.”

“Not all control methods work in all areas. Every situation is different and sometimes it takes a combination of control methods to get the job done. It takes a constant effort in certain areas,” Higginbotham says. “When we continue to put pressure on populations or change their behavior and cause them to move on we can decrease the damage on a value basis by two thirds. When we reduced the number of pigs with legal control methods, economic impact went down from $2.2 million to $750,000. We have 2.6 million wild pigs in the state were not going to eliminate them, but with education and proper control methods we can manage damage.”

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