Billion-dollar problem hogging profits | TSLN.com

Billion-dollar problem hogging profits

Kathy Parker
Tri-State Livestock News, Open Season 2016

It looks like a dozer track. The ruts can be three feet deep. What kind of equipment caused that much damage? Biological equipment. Feral hogs.

Feral is defined as "having escaped from domestication and become wild." USDA estimates approximately six million feral hogs are causing losses all over the country. Oklahoma has a serious hog problem.

It's difficult to get exact counts on feral hogs because they are secretive and cunning. A 2007 study by the Noble Foundation found feral hogs in 74 of Oklahoma's 77 counties with a number between 617,000 and 1.4 million statewide. It is a problem that grows exponentially each year, since wild hogs produce two, and maybe even three, litters of pigs per year at an average of four to 10 live piglets per litter.

Hog populations are most dense in areas following river drainage or other water sources. The earliest feral hogs reported in Oklahoma were in the south central and southeast portions of the state, but they soon spread northwest.

“They are walking, rooting and wallowing ecological disasters that cause approximately $1 billion per year in damage nationwide.”-United States Department of Agriculture

All feral hogs in the U.S. were escaped domestic animals until the 1930s when sport hunters began importing Russian wild boars from Europe and Asia and releasing them. The range is ever-expanding since the hogs are travelers. Hunters continued to reintroduce the Russian hogs and improved pastures and crops provided improved food sources. Since feral hogs are highly adaptable and reproduce rapidly, the numbers soon got out of control. Current populations include pure Russian hogs, pure domestic hogs and crossbreds of the two.

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Wild hogs come in most every color, including spotted and belted. Russian hogs have the longest bristle length. Wild hogs may reach 300 pounds and beyond, but most are around 36 inches tall and between 100 and 150 pounds. Boars have four continually growing tusks that are very sharp and reach five inches long before they are broken or worn off from use. The tusks are used for defense and to establish dominance during breeding. Males develop thick, tough skin composed of cartilage and scar tissue in the shoulder area, sometimes referred to as a "shield." The shield develops continually with age and from fighting.

Pure Russian hogs have lighter underside color and the legs, ears and tails are darker than the body. They have longer legs and snouts than straight domestic ferals and shorter, straighter tails. Russian hogs can raise the hair on the backs of their necks and shoulders. This is where the term "razorback" originated.

Feral hogs range as far as 19 square miles and possibly farther if food sources are scarce. Boars travel and feed alone. Feral hog groups are called "sounders," and are made up of sows and piglets.

Trapping is probably the most common method of control. Game wardens and others who work to control the hog population stress the need to begin control is when signs first appear because the prolific nature insures once the numbers grow, the hogs become permanent residents. At that point, eradication is unlikely and landowners are left trying to control the population.

Luke Williams said he has trapped 55 head in a trap in Delaware County, Oklahoma. This is in the far northeast corner of the state.

Traps can be cage or corral type, but they need tops as the hogs can climb. Often corral traps are made of steel panels and T-posts. Cage traps catch fewer hogs but are portable. Since the hogs are wary and observant, it is best to bait traps with the doors tied open until the hogs will go all the way to the back to eat. A Judas hog is often used inside the trap to lure others.

Another method of control is hunting. Jeff Crosswhite of Newkirk, Okla., has been hunting hogs since 1981.

"I was on the Bledsoe ranch between the Caney and Verdigris rivers," Crosswhite said. "The hogs started eating on heifers that were down calving and I was finding hide and bones left of calves. I had dogs I used on cattle in the brush, so I started using them to hunt."

Crosswhite's dogs are mostly Catahoulas. He said using the dogs he made a dent in the sizable hog population on that ranch.

"They will leave where you start hunting with dogs," Crosswhite said.

Crosswhite said the state of Oklahoma brought helicopters to hunt the hogs, but "all you get shot are the dumb ones." He said hogs hear the helicopters long before they arrive, and take cover.

Crosswhite said while most of the hogs he catches are around 150 pounds, a good number of the boars weigh around 250 pounds.

"The biggest one I've got is 460 pounds. I weighed him at the Talala (Okla.) feed mill."

Crosswhite said many farmers around Newkirk hire him to hunt hogs because of damage to equipment. "One fellow I hunt for has a cornfield on the river and he busted a header when he went to harvest. It was ruined."

Crosswhite said the adaptability of hogs is amazing. "I've hunted where there was a lot of poison ivy, and those hogs had eaten that poison ivy as far as they could rear up on the trees. They raise all their pigs. The other sows help them. All the sows watch over all the pigs and they will nurse each other's pigs."

Hog hunting is free in Oklahoma by any means at any time. Kansas has outlawed hunting hogs except with purchased tags. Kansas game wardens set traps. Crosswhite said these rules have resulted in "bad hog problems."

Crosswhite said the wild hogs will kill domestic dogs and come into yards to root. "I know a woman who had them kill her dog and they've torn her yard up. She won't go outside. They'll put you up a tree. All you can do is try to manage them," Crosswhite said.

Fencing, toxicants and natural predators are also used as control for wild hogs.

Hogs are usually the last blamed for livestock losses because they carry kills away to eat them. Wild hogs may carry or transmit diseases to humans and livestock, the worst of which are pseudorabies and swine brucellosis. They may also carry and transmit tuberculosis, tick fever, rabies, anthrax and tularemia.

Pseudorabies is not related to the rabies virus and does not infect humans. It does weaken pigs, cause abortions, stillbirths and makes infected domestic hogs lifetime carriers. Infected animals periodically shed the virus through their mouths and noses. It is transmitted by direct contact, contaminated feed and water, ingestion of contaminated tissue and contaminated trailers.

Swine brucellosis causes abortion and failure to breed. It is transmissible to humans, at which point it is called undulant fever. Any contact with contaminated fetuses or tissue can spread the disease to humans. It is spread between hogs by direct and sexual contact, which poses a threat to the domestic hog population.

Some ranchers have turned a bad situation into a money-maker. Sportsmen pay for guided hog hunts. Some of the ranches have bounties on the largest hogs. Chain Ranch offers hog hunts on the ranch in Cherokee, Oklahoma and Medicine Lodge, Kansas. This is a kind of agritourism enterprise that is good for the land, the landowner and fun for the sportsman.

As the hogs continue to multiply and extend their range, more areas will see the effects. The Texas Department of Agriculture estimates seven out of every 10 hogs must be killed to keep the population in that state at the level it is now – not to decrease the population, just to keep it static. For many states like Oklahoma, hogs are probably here to stay. The key now is control.

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