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Equipment Hub: Pesky pest problems

Andy Overbay for Progressive Forage Published on 14 July 2020

Farming, no matter what production methods are used, works in concert with nature. Even the most complex biotechnology works only when used with the partnership of Mother Nature. Nature can also deal some pretty tough challenges to our equipment, both in the field and back at the shed.

While the temperature, moisture and dust of the field can take a toll over time, there are plenty of challenges that await our equipment’s return to storage. Creatures and critters can wreak havoc on our expensive machinery.

Understanding the needs and behaviors of common natural threats, namely birds and mice, is the key to controlling those threats. If you think about it, animals aren’t really any different than humans when it comes to looking for a place to live. If an animal can find food, water and safe shelter, then that must be a pretty nice neighborhood in which to live and raise a family.

Farm machinery sheds and the machinery within them can offer an inviting home to rodents and birds, either of which can do damage ranging from merely aggravating to financially devastating.

Rodents, mice especially, love farm machinery – and if that equipment is used seasonally and maintains long periods of inactivity, you can bet mice have their eye on it. To control rodents, we need to either deny them access to the equipment to begin with or take steps to trap or kill them outright.

One feature all rodents share are their incisors, the large teeth in the foremost of their mouths. These teeth continue to grow the entire life of the rodent and can only be maintained by gnawing on things … thus wearing them back. Without the process of gnawing, a rodent’s teeth can soon grow out of control and prevent the animal from eating properly.

So if a mouse gets in your machinery, it is certain it will gnaw on something. It is certain whatever is gnawed on will be something you really do not want gnawed. Many times what materializes first from rodent damage is electrical system failures. Copper wires make excellent files for a rodent to sharpen their teeth, so they fall prey to be being bitten in two.

Rodents are prolific breeders and will build nests in machinery. Soft, fluffy materials are a target for nesting mice, and the modern cab of a tractor, combine or windrower offers a wide and ready selection for the discerning, shopping mouse.

Between soft materials and electrical issues, mice in equipment can and do lead to fires that are often catastrophic. Since electrical wire insulation does not react well when exposed to heat, even if you successfully control an equipment fire, another fire sparked from wires damaged in the original flames is possible.

Before we move on, there is one important health and safety threat you should consider if you find nesting mice in your machinery. Hantavirus is a disease carried by a variety of small rodents and passed to humans through urine, feces and saliva. Though it is passively borne by the mice and rats who carry it, and though human infection is relatively rare, once humans become infected it can turn into hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which, sadly, is often fatal. If you find a nest, wear a mask, gloves and goggles, and try to control the dust generated by the clean-up.

Birds may not have the tendency to gnaw as rodents do, but they can be just as problematic to your machinery. Like rodents, the way our storage is designed can help reduce the threat of invasion, but those designs still have to be maintained to continue their effectiveness.

Like rodents, nesting birds are always seeking a safe, secluded place to call home. That home may not be noticeable until it is too late, given improvements in hood designs and engine compartment coverage. Even with greater engine coverage, many birds can be very opportunistic in finding paths to the top of your motor block. In fact, a circuitous route to the nest site often is preferred by birds, as it lowers their exposure to predators such as snakes and cats.

Accumulated droppings are messy and can corrode farm equipment. Over the years, I have seen bird droppings become so heavy they destroyed electric motors. Our tower silo unloader’s motor fell victim to just such an occurrence. Pigeons found the silo was a good place to warm their feet during the cold winter months. We did our best to control them, but shooting the pigeons was difficult because we did not want to frighten the dairy cows, nor did we want to put holes in our silo roof.

They roosted on the warm motor to the point their droppings filled the cooling fins on the housing and eventually cooked the motor. After lugging a 10-HP motor up the silo chute on a rope, pigeon patrol took on a higher priority.

You can take steps to keep birds from becoming a problem or to lessen an existing problem. Before beginning any control program, however, you should be familiar with the laws protecting birds, be able to identify which birds are causing the problem and know something about their behavior and habits. This is necessary because the nature of a particular bird species determines which methods to use for controlling problems the birds cause.

I have issues with starlings in our old machine shed. The shed’s design does not lend itself to limiting the birds’ access to the tractors, but necessity is the mother of invention. My wife, Andrea, recalled having some old screens for a door we replaced and, with a few modifications to the screen and a few cow magnets, our tractor has the protection of a custom bird net.

There are some excellent resources on bird control methods available from your extension office; Penn State has some particularly helpful ones. You should also check with your state wildlife control office. There may be resources and even personnel that will help you control bird issues without the threat of any legal problems. end mark

Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.