Tommy Goodwin walked through a coastal bermudagrass pasture on a cold early winter day and kicked up clumps of dead or dying grass, rooted up by a herd of feral hogs that he’s at a loss to know what to do about.
Goodwin has raised cattle on this Camp County farm for 22 years and has never battled a pest as damaging, or as difficult to control, as feral hogs.
“They’ve been here for about three years,” Goodwin says. “I think they came in during a drought, looking for water. The population has exploded.”
He’s tried every legal means he knows to reduce the population. So far traps and snares have not been successful.
He says hunting is ineffective. “Feral hogs are nocturnal so you have to hunt them at night. You might kill one and you might miss them altogether. That’s not enough to reduce the population. There’s no telling how many we have around here.”
He’s tried snares, setting them in the trails hogs take from the woods into pastures and fields. “They just move over and make a new trail,” Goodwin says.
Population dynamics make eliminating feral hogs a near impossibility with current management techniques. “They multiply quickly. A sow can produce two litters a year and they start breeding at nine to 12 months old.”
He says the math tells the tale. If one sow produces two eight-pig litters a year, she’ll add 5,000 pigs to the local population in just five years. And all the females in those litters are reproducing within a year so the numbers increase rapidly.
And they do a lot of damage. Goodwin said he’ll have to re-sprig much of his coastal bermudagrass pasture. “One 30-acre spot was so torn up I couldn’t cut it for hay. Hogs root up the grass and expose the roots. Low temperatures will kill the stand.”
He’ll have to disk and drag pastures to renovate. “I’ll lose a cutting of hay next summer. And I just hope I get rain so the grass will start to recover.”
Renovation is not cheap. Estimates from 2007 show a $185 per acre price tag for coastal bermudagrass renovation and $260 for Tifton 85. Those figures include land preparation, herbicide and fertilizer applications and cost of sprigs ($65 for coastal and $140 for Tifton 85). Those are also 2007 estimates and may be higher with increased fertilizer and fuel costs.
Goodwin, who operates a cow/calf operation, including purebred Simmentals, says he’s had no equipment damage, “yet. I try to stay out of the areas that are torn up, but I’ll have to disk and drag those.”
Camp County Extension Agent Galen Logan says it’s hard to estimate feral hog damage countywide, but he says ranchers, as well as row crop farmers, fruit and vegetable producers and poultry house operators have suffered damage from the pests. In addition to destroying crops and property, feral hogs create serious erosion problems. They also carry diseases, some of which can be transmitted to domestic swine, cattle, other animals and, in some cases, humans.
They threaten lambs, goat kids, quail and other ground-nesting birds.
“They’re everywhere,” Logan said. “We can’t control them by hunting or trapping. Exclusion fencing is another option, using high tensile fencing, but that’s expensive.”
Some landowners may try electric fencing, but installing an effective electric fence costs about $2000 for 100 acres.
“This is the worst pest problem we have,” he said.
Statewide, feral hogs cause an estimated $52 million in damage to agriculture annually, says Billy Higginbotham, Texas Extension wildlife and fisheries specialist. “That’s just for agriculture and does not include damage to landscapes, golf courses, parks and vehicles.
“Also, farmers, ranchers and landowners spend $7 million a year to correct damage from feral hogs and to try to control them.”
Goodwin is not alone in his frustration with hog damage. Recent estimates indicate the feral hog population across Texas could be as high as 2 million animals. That’s more than any other state, Higginbotham says. “All but a few counties, particularly several bordering new Mexico, have populations of feral hogs. About 90 percent of the state’s counties have feral swine populations.”
Many farmers and landowners across the state now cite feral hogs as their No. 1 production pest. Nationally, estimates put the feral hog population at about 4 million animals.
Higginbotham says eradicating feral hogs, with current technology, is not likely. But significantly reducing damage is.
A Texas Cooperative Extension Statewide Feral Hog Abatement Pilot Project, implemented in January 2006, and funded by a Texas Department of Agriculture grant, indicated potential to reduce feral hog damage by two-thirds, Higginbotham says.
That project included three geographical areas, including Camp County, and 42 participants representing more than 175,000 acres. Damage or expenditures directly attributable to feral hogs the previous year totaled more than $2 million for the three areas in the pilot project (Post Oak Savannah/Pineywoods, Blackland Prairie and Coastal Plain).
Following the abatement program, cooperators reported a decline in damage to $1.2 million “as a direct result of Wildlife Services abatement efforts, including removal of 1,893 feral hogs,” Higginbotham says. Cooperators saved just over $944,000 the first year of the project.
Other educational events held across the state in 2006 also saved landowners money; an estimated $919,471 based on 2005 damage and estimated reduction in damage for 2006 of $1,188,398.
Higginbotham says trapping represents the best option to remove enough feral hogs to make a difference in damage. Other legal methods of feral hog control include snaring, shooting (either from the air or on the ground) and using dogs. Toxicants are not legal in Texas or the United States.
“Anyone using a toxicant to control feral hogs is in violation of the law,” Higginbotham says.
He says success with trapping improves with better techniques. He cites using the wrong trap, placing it in the wrong place and failing to pre-bait as typical errors.
Landowners need to set a trap to match the population. “They may check a trap to find three hogs inside and six outside,” he says. “The trap should have the trigger a maximum distance away from the entrance so the last hog is in before the first trips it.”
He says a remote sensing camera may provide a good estimate of hog population.
Higginbotham says landowners often place a trap near where they see damage. A better option is to set the trap near where the animals emerge from cover and move into fields and pastures.
“Place the trap upwind, especially if using a scented bait.”
He said another mistake trappers make is not pre-baiting. “Start putting corn in piles on the ground at first indication of feral hogs. Get an idea of the numbers present. Continue to put bait on the ground and then in the trap, with the gate wired open.”
He said a remote camera can show when all the hogs are comfortable entering the trap to get the bait.
“It’s a process,” he says, “especially if the animals have been messed with before.”
Shelled corn is a typical wildlife bait, but a scented bait might be a better option for feral hogs. Many other animals will eat shelled corn. He says soured corn or some other scented bait might eliminate some competitors. “Strawberry flavored baits show promise.”
Starting off right is important. People who trap the wrong way educate feral hogs and make them harder to trap. They’re smart and get wary. If one is caught in a trap and for some reason turned loose, he won’t go back in a trap.”
He says shooting may not be as efficient as trapping, but can be more effective if done properly. Concentrating efforts in the early morning or late afternoon offers better opportunities than sitting in a deer stand all day waiting for a hog to show up. He also says that taking pot shots at groups of hogs makes them more wary and even more nocturnal. He said remote sensing cameras will show when the hogs are most active so hunters can focus efforts more effectively.
Higginbotham says Texas landowners may not be able to eradicate feral hogs, “but we can reduce the economic impact significantly.’
He recommends landowners interested in learning more about feral hogs, including trapping procedures and trap designs, to check feralhogs.tamu.edu.