Food Plot Menaces: Feral Hogs
March 21, 2012
When hogs first took up residence in late winter on my buddy's farm a decade ago, I was pleasantly surprised. I figured they were a bonus Mother Nature dropped in our laps for a little post-deer-season hunting excitement. Feral hogs could be chased any time of year with any weapon, they were fun to hunt, there were no special licenses or limits and in the right hands, they were pretty darn tasty. My enthusiasm soon waned and when it came time to plant and then replant our summer food plots in early May, I was firmly in the camp of "kill hogs at all costs and by any means necessary." A year and several thousand dollars later, I would lay awake at night, plotting and scheming up ways to kill and trap hogs more efficiently and ruthlessly.
Feral hogs are not intrinsically bad critters -- they live, eat and procreate like all other animals. But hogs do these three things better, faster and more often than most other animals on the planet and cause huge problems on properties where the focus is serious deer management. If you are slipping through your hunting property for a little scouting or happen to catch a hog rooting around a food plot, get serious that instant about eradicating him and all his buddies from your property as soon as possible.
Two good friends of mine, one of whom happens to be my little brother, are wildlife biologists charged with growing big, healthy deer. While John Guthrie and Marc Bartoskewitz are a couple thousand miles apart and their ranches and plantations are vastly different in terms of habitat, they share a common problem -- feral hogs.
Food plots have long been used as a way to boost the available nutrition for whitetails to promote body and antler growth. During hunting season they can be tools for harvesting deer, allowing hunters to more accurately age and sex the deer they are about to shoot. John Guthrie, who has worked on several plantations in Georgia and South Carolina over the past six years, said hogs, when they show up in force, are his No. 1 headache.
"Depending on the cultivar and plot size, a sounder of hogs can wipe out a food plot in a few nights, undoing months of work and flushing several thousand (dollars) down the drain," Guthrie said. "Hogs will eat just about anything, but can be especially devastating to sorghum and bean plots. And don't think crops like corn that sit above their noses are safe. They simply bulldoze down the plants to get to the ears."
Food plots catch it on both ends, from planting to maturity.
"Any big-seed planting is vulnerable really," Guthrie said. "We've planted corn and beans one day and come back the next to find that hogs went down each and every row, rooting up and eating the seed before it had a chance to germinate."
At that point, the only thing to do was start over from scratch, smoothing the plot back out and buying a couple of additional bags of seed.
"Plants like iron and clay peas or forage soybeans are amazing in terms of the tonnage they produce but are really expensive to plant," Guthrie said. "When you have to spend that money again, it takes away from the management budget in a big way. I would rather have that cash to spend on burning in late winter or some other type of habitat management, not plowing and planting the same food plot twice."
Even if you plant a cultivar that is unattractive to hogs, they can still wreak havoc. With one of nature's most sensitive noses, hogs can smell roots, tubers and grubs deep underneath that fine stand of winter wheat or clover and will literally turn the plot upside down to get to the groceries. A sounder's rooting can resemble the mad ramblings of an out-of-control backhoe.
"Most farming equipment is designed to work on fairly smooth ground, so hitting a patch of rooting is akin to running over a pothole in your truck at 70 miles an hour," Guthrie said. "Rooted up food plots are hell on equipment, especially implements like no-till drills. We have snapped bolts and damaged stuff by running over rooting."
If rooting occurs after a planting, small seeds can be buried too deep to germinate or young plants can be killed outright.
Marc Bartoskewitz worked on the famed King Ranch for 11 years and managed several other South Texas ranches through his wildlife management consulting business. He currently works on a 53,000-acre place.
All the properties were focused on growing the big bucks for which South Texas is famous and all had feral hogs.
"We had 100 percent coverage on the ranches I managed on, and on some properties, 50 percent or so. They were an absolute plague," Bartoskewitz said. "Most sows have multiple litters per year and can have up to a dozen or so piglets at a whack. Their recruitment rate, or survival rate, is exceptional in most normal years, in the 80-percent-plus range. In drought years like this past season, it is still around 50 percent, so you are looking at exponential population growth in most cases."
Coyotes and bobcats will take piglets, but humans are the only real predators for mature hogs. Hogs on the other hand, will eat anything not nailed down including the occasional deer fawn. Fortunately for South Texas deer managers, there is not a lot of shared preference in terms of natural forage.
"From a native habitat standpoint, there not much evidence showing that hogs can be detrimental to deer numbers," Bartoskewitz said. "Since deer here mostly browse vegetation there isn't much of an overlap there, about five percent or so. Any problems there can be overcome with good brush and range management to promote forb growth. That could change if a hard or soft mast crop happens to be a big part of a deer's diet on a particular ranch."
It is pretty obvious that anywhere mast crops are an essential part of a deer herd's diet, hogs can cause problems. Unlike deer that browse across their home range in a meandering, resource-conserving and low-impact manner, hogs park on a food source and eat until it is exhausted. Hogs eat like, well, hogs.
"Swamp chestnut oaks down in the river swamps are a preferred early-season food source for deer in this part of the country," Guthrie said. "They are pretty scarce, only producing a crop every couple of years and a dynamite hunting spot when located. I have had bumper crops of acorns disappear in a matter of days because hogs found the tree and ate until the acorns were gone."
The ubiquitous South Texas protein feeder is the way many South Texas deer managers increase a herd's available nutrition, and it is here where the majority of hog-human-deer conflicts occur. Feeding deer is expensive. Add 15 or 20 hogs to the mix and managers might as well throw $100 bills out the window as they drive around the ranch. Big sows and boars will root under or just plain tear down fences designed to keep them away from feeders, clearing a path for the entire sounder.
"Not only will hogs eat tons of feed when they park on a feeder, but they will push deer off the feeders entirely," Bartoskewitz said. "Deer just do not like hogs and will move out of an area when hogs move in."
I was unable to find any scientific studies that looked at how deer home ranges were affected by hogs moving into an area, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests this is the case. Hogs prefer to hide in dense cover during the day and then hit food sources at night, just like deer. Since the patterns and preferred hiding places are so similar between the species, conflicts are inevitable.
"My trail cam photos tell the story one photo at a time," Guthrie said. "We will get pictures of deer on a food plot, trail or protein feeder and then hogs will move into the area. The deer simply disappear from the photos after the hogs arrive."
Maybe the largest challenge for small property owners is keeping bucks on their property. Managing hunter pressure and creating sanctuaries are proven methods for doing just that. A visit from marauding hogs can unhinge these efforts in a few days.
Feral hogs are not all bad. Bartoskewitz said in some of South Texas' sandy soils, their rooting can actually stimulate plant growth. Ranches and plantations draw a little extra income by offering hog hunting in the off-season, but it rarely out paces the expense of damaged food plots and feeding programs.
Controlling hogs is another huge drain on resources. Both Bartoskewitz and Guthrie said sport hunting will never solve the problem. Hogs turn nocturnal, relocate to inaccessible areas of a property and are just smart about avoiding hunters.
"There is really no one foolproof method to control populations," Bartoskewitz said. "I always recommend taking every approach you can from sport hunting, baiting, night hunting, trapping and shooting from helicopters if you can afford it. You have to declare all-out war to get a handle on hogs."
Rod Pinkston said a multi-pronged approach is the only way to get a handle on the problem. Pinkston's company, Jager Pro, hunts with military-grade thermal and night vision devices for three or four months of the year. The equipment allows Pinkston and his hunters to quickly locate hogs and darkness eliminates one of the hogs' defenses, sight. It is then just a matter of getting the wind right and closing to within 100 or so yards before the shooting starts. With good shooters, bagging 15 or 20 hogs a night is not uncommon. Pinkston and I were able to kill five of seven hogs in a small sounder the night we hunted together.
But trapping is where Pinkston really puts the hurt on hog populations. On our recent hunt, Pinkston explained that most traditional trapping methods are pretty ineffective, capturing just a few individuals from the sounder. He has video showing mature sows -- sows that had probably been trapped and escaped at some point in their lives -- avoiding traditional traps altogether. Given a sounder's ability to reproduce exponentially, 50 percent capture rates are necessary to contain populations and 90 to 100 percent capture rates lower populations. Pinkston and his team have refined traps and the trapping process to do just that. If you want to learn more about this new trapping method, visit www.jagerpro.com and you'll find videos demonstrating the equipment.
For property owners looking to reduce hog populations, trapping programs and helicopters cost money that could be devoted to whitetail habitat or herd management. Hogs eat feed intended for deer in food plots and at feed stations and push deer out of places where managers want them to be. Sure, they offer a hunting opportunity, and for commercial operations, an additional revenue stream, but no one I spoke with thought the positives outweighed the damage caused by hogs.
So deer hunters beware. If you want to grow mature bucks and have healthy deer populations on your property, it can be pretty hard to do with feral hogs on your property.