How to Deal with Food Plot Pests


Rodents and Other Small Mammals Can Damage Your Food Plots

Have you ever had to deal with gophers in your food plots? (Bernie Barringer photo)

We usually point to things like fertilizer, weather, soil types and timing of plantings when we are considering if our food plots will thrive. But there are factors working behind the scenes that can cause damage to your food plots. Critters large and small use these plots and some of them can cause significant reductions in the productivity of your efforts. You've worked hard for the hunting land you purchased. Here's what you need to know to protect it.

From insects to birds, food plots can be damaged from the moment the seed hits the ground until the usefulness of the forage is complete, but in many cases, small mammals are doing the most damage, and much of it is hard to see from the surface. Let’s take a look at a few of the primary culprits, examine the extent of the damage they do, and discuss some effective control measures.

Pocket Gophers

Damage: Pocket gophers are abundant across much of the whitetail’s range and the mounds they make are a common sight. These mounds cover up small plants which will cause the plants to die. Pocket gophers feed on bulbs, roots and tubers and often consume brassicas from below, without much evidence from above, other than leaves turning yellow or brown from lack of moisture. Gopher tunnels will channel needed rain water away from the surface to deep areas where it can’t do the plants much good.

Control: The best way to eliminate pocket gophers is to trap them. Several clutch-style traps have been developed specifically for catching gophers and are available at most any hardware or farm store. I have caught them with several brands and styles of traps, but over time I have switched almost entirely to the EZ Set model. With these traps, I have limited misses and most gophers die quickly and humanely in them.

Catching Pocket Gophers is quite easy once you learn where to set the traps. Here in Minnesota, they go to work as soon as the frost goes out of the ground in the spring, and that’s a great time to trap them. I plant brassicas around the first of August and as soon as the plants begin to show up, the pocket gophers arrive and I will once again remove problem individuals.

If you look closely at the gopher mounds, you will see that they form a line of sorts. The gophers pile dirt on the top of the ground as they clear out their tunnels and the mounds form a linear pattern. It stands to reason that the mounds on the end of the line are the most active. If you set a trap at the right mound, you will normally catch the gopher within 24 hours. If you have trouble determining which mounds are the most recent, just put a footprint on each mound and come back the next day. There will be at least one new mound to trap.

Find a soft spot in the mound and you’ve found the tunnel, which angles to the side. Clear out the tunnel with a small shovel and set a trap and slide it inside the entrance. Within a foot of the surface, all tunnels will have a fork in them. You’ll want your trap just above the fork.

I stake down my traps because a coyote or fox may find it and run off with the gopher and the trap. I like to cover the hole with a board so the tunnel is dark. Gophers are active at night so check the traps each morning.

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Ground Squirrels

Damage: One of the most common small mammals in the Midwest is the 13-lined ground squirrel. They seem to be everywhere; you’ll see them along roads and in any pasture. They are commonly called “stripers” or “striped gophers,” although they are not a member of the gopher family. They dig small holes which lead to underground tunnels where they sleep and store food. These holes are part of the problem they cause. The tunnels drop straight down before turning to the side, and a deer’s lower leg fits right in the tunnel. Deer can sustain serious leg injuries from stepping in one of these holes.

Ground squirrels also wreak havoc on food plots. (Bernie Barringer photo)Additionally, the damage these critters cause to food plots comes in the fact that they love the small shoots of plants as they emerge, and these little vermin can kill hundreds of plants a day by nipping them off as soon as they come up. They fill their overstuffed cheeks with succulent nodules and haul load after load of them back underground to their storage chambers. The damage can be extensive in some areas.

Control: Because these ground squirrels are active during the day, the best way to rid your food plot of them is to shoot them. My sons have enjoyed lying at the edge of the food plot with a scoped .22; the target practice on these little varmints is good preparation for hunting. They have excellent eyesight and will dive underground at the slightest movement. If you want to take a more utilitarian approach, a 12-gauge loaded with birdshot will take them out from up to about 50 yards.

I have to admit, I enjoy the challenge of hunting these pests, which adds to the pleasure of knowing I am doing something good for my food plot and the deer herd. I invested in a scoped .17-caliber rifle with a bipod and now I spend some warm spring afternoons sprawled out on the grass near my food plots, doing my part to rid the property of these pesky critters.

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Other small mammals such as raccoons, opposums and skunks also take their toll. (Bernie Barringer photo)

Raccoons, Skunks and Groundhogs

Damage: The only real food-plot crime committed by groundhogs, often called woodchucks, is they compete with the deer animals for the plants in the food plot. Skunks mess up food plots by digging for grubs and uprooting plants. Raccoons are also guilty of this and they can do some real damage to corn crops.

Raccoons will pull down entire corn stalks and take one or two bites out of the ear of corn to gauge the stage of maturity. They love to eat the corn when it’s in the milk stage and there’s a short window where the bandits do the most damage. But their bites on each ear invite insects that can ruin the entire ear of corn. Plus, the fact that the stalk is often broken off when pulled down means it will quickly die before the corn itself is mature.

Additionally, anyone who provides supplemental feed for deer or places piles of grain in front of scouting cameras to take inventory of the deer on their property knows how much raccoons can add to the costs of doing so. Raccoons are prolific and are common carriers of distemper and rabies, so keeping their population at a manageable level is always a good idea.

Control: I don’t get too excited about removing groundhogs from my food plots because their damage is not significant unless the population gets out of hand. Still, when opportunities arise to reduce their population, I do so just as I do the ground squirrels — by shooting them.

I primarily control raccoons during the fall trapping season when their pelts have some value. I hit my property pretty heavy with traps and snares for a couple weeks each fall to reduce their numbers. Outside of the trapping season, when I find that a skunk or raccoon is tearing up my food plot, I simply put out a box trap with some good-smelling sweet bait in the back corner of it.

What to do with the problem animal once you have trapped it can be a dilemma. Many states prohibit the killing of raccoons and skunks outside of the trapping season. Some states offer permits for doing so but some require you to relocate the critter — give your problem to someone else — so make sure you check your state and local game laws so you don’t get yourself in trouble with the authorities.

If it’s legal to dispatch the problem animal, a shot to the noggin with a .22 takes care of it quickly and humanely. While our food plots are intended to benefit deer, other critters benefit as well. Wholesale killing of all other animals using the plot is not the objective, but some diligence in reducing the population of food plot pests is an honorable goal. These simple tips should help you do so, with the added benefit of getting you out to enjoy the property during all times of the year.

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Editor's note: This was originally published September 10, 2018.

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