Groundhog, creative commons

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I received a phone call in June from a family member saying something was destroying the soybean fields I planted less than a month before.

After spending all winter planning on how to grow the dream crop of soybeans, something was already dashing my hopes.

The sides of my fields had areas that were completely bare of soybeans. It wasn’t due to water, insects or deer. It was from the animal I have decided to personally declare war on — groundhogs.

Woodchucks, more commonly known as groundhogs, are one of soybean farmers’ worst enemies. They live in burrows underground and feed immediately outside their homes.

If their homes are in the middle of the field, the damage will be in a circular area around the burrow. If it is along the side of the field as in my fields, the damage will be in a half circle pattern.

Groundhogs eat the entire soybean plant. As they remove the plants closest to their holes, they venture outward, and the damage becomes worse as the growing season continues.

Some people may not agree with killing groundhogs to control them. They are entitled to their own opinion, but when farmers are trying to make a living raising crops, they cannot just stand back and watch their investment be eaten.

People may think, how much damage can a little old groundhog cause? One family of groundhogs can consume a tenth to a quarter of an acre of soybeans. If you have several families, the loss can be in the thousands of dollars.

Groundhogs also cause damage to equipment by making holes in the fields, which can break the axles and frames of equipment as it goes through the field.

How many groundhogs can there be? After spending the past 10 years trying to control them, I found there are more than I originally thought.

Over the past five years, I have eliminated more than 80 woodchucks on my 52-acre farm. This year, I have removed 77 from the 150 acres of ground I farm, and this number is growing weekly.

One reason I believe people underestimate their numbers is due to them living in burrows. Most of the time, they hide in their holes and only one or two will be out. There are many more underground that you don’t see.

The most woodchucks I have found in one set of holes this year is 11. This was in an area I ended up having to replant.

Another problem that makes woodchucks hard to control is the fact that they move. After a family of woodchucks is eliminated at a hole, it doesn’t take long for a neighboring woodchuck to move into the empty burrow.

All of the woodchuck dens on my farm are within 50 feet of the property lines. That makes eliminating the problem almost impossible unless the neighbors choose to control them or I choose to control those on the neighboring properties as well.

Eliminating woodchucks may not be an appropriate description since it feels like the harder I work to do this, the more woodchucks I have.

Control would be a better term for what I’m attempting to do.

The most common method most farmers use is firearms, which can be deadly from point blank range to more than 600 yards away.

Search “Pennsylvania groundhog hunting” on YouTube, and you will find several good videos of hunters eliminating groundhogs at long ranges.

But there are problems with using firearms: They are effective only if the groundhog is out of the hole. There are also situations where you cannot use guns, such as near buildings.

The vegetation has to be low enough to see them, and shooting is legal only Monday through Saturday. If you see one on Sunday, you’re supposed to watch it eat your crop until Monday.

Woodchucks like to live around or under buildings. I assume it’s because there are usually fewer predators there, dens that are under buildings are less likely to flood and animals are not shot at by most people when they are near buildings.

I’ve even seen a groundhog make a burrow under a propane tank, where no right-minded hunter would think of shooting.

I once had a woodchuck living in my yard that became nocturnal when I hunted hard with my rifle. I only saw it out at night when I pulled in the driveway with the car lights on. It wouldn’t come out during the day.

Another method of control is to place gas cartridges in the hole to euthanize them. In this method, the entrances to the den need to be closed to keep the fumes inside. Other downsides are that you cannot be sure how effective the method was and the hole remains for others to move back in.

A third method involves using propane and oxygen. This is probably the most effective, long-term control because it gets rid of the hole as well as the rodent.

The two devices I saw are called Varmitgetter and Rodenator. These pump both propane and oxygen into the burrow and then ignite the gas mixture. The rodents inside are killed instantaneously by the concussion.

This device is used in the West on prairie dogs and pocket gophers. Blowing up the hole prevents future animals from moving in.

These devices can cost more than $1,000 but are probably the best control method for those serious about groundhog control.

A fourth method I was introduced to several years ago was the use of Duke body traps.

Body traps come in different sizes and are mostly used by trappers for beavers and muskrat. No. 160s are the right size for woodchucks.

Body traps can be placed directly over the entrances of the burrow. Whenever the woodchuck tries to enter or leave the den, the trap kills it.

If a trap is placed on every hole of the den, it’s just a matter of time before all the woodchucks are eliminated from that hole.

Body traps, like all methods of control, have their downsides. They are not legal to use on groundhogs in some states, including Pennsylvania.

Despite legal prohibitions, body traps are highly effective on woodchucks when used properly. Another downside is the time it takes to set the traps, check them and move them from hole to hole.

Ideally, they should be checked daily to prevent the woodchucks from decaying too much.

Finally, these traps are nonselective. They will kill any small mammal that tries to crawl through them, including rabbits, cats, dogs, skunks, rats and opossums.

Live traps are another control method. The benefit is that they do not kill the animal that enters and it can be relocated. If a nontarget animal is caught, it can be removed without harm.

Live traps can be purchased at many stores. The downside is the fact that this method only moves the problem from one place to another.

Natural predators are the preferred method of controling pests from an environmentalist’s perspective.

I can remember growing up that my uncle’s dog, a collie, and grandfather’s dog, a boarder collie, killed more than 50 groundhogs in one summer.

Dogs can be effective around buildings where hunting and body traps cannot be used safely.

Other farmers I have talked with claim the coyotes have been doing a good job controlling woodchucks. Their coyotes must be doing a better job than the ones around my farm.

This summer, I was talking with a neighbor of a property I was renting in Rockwood, and he claimed there were coyotes living on the hillside directly behind where I eliminated 10 groundhogs.

Jesse Brant is an agriculture teacher in Adams County and a crop farmer in Rockwood, Pennsylvania.