188: At War with Rats on the Homestead

188: At War with Rats on the Homestead

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Oftentimes when people think about rats, they think dirty and run down and garbage and mess. However, when I think about rats, I think farm. I think feed. I think egg stealers. I think protect the baby chicks! I think rats, and I think “another predator you have to deal with”.

Today I’m going to talk about our recent dealings with rats, what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what our future plans are to deal with them.

Why you don’t want rats on your homestead

I realize that there are some folks in the world who like rats. They even keep them for pets. That’s fine. You do you. However, I don’t want rats on my farm. They kill our baby chicks and turkey poults. They steal eggs from our nesting boxes. And they eat whatever feed they can get to.

How our rat problem started

We have been here at our farm for ten years. For the first nine years, we’d see the occasional rat, but it was very occasional, and it was usually a dead rat that a proud barn cat had left for us somewhere in the yard.

Last year, something was killing our meat bird chicks and turkey poults in our smaller red barn. After losing two or three night after night, my husband set up a camera in that barn. A couple nights later we caught the culprit(s) on camera: rats.

Long story short, we had a lot of rats—and probably way more than I actually saw on camera. We got to work dealing with the issue (explained more below) but I started to wonder why now? Why no rat problem for nine years and then BOOM, overloaded in year ten?

A few months later, after we’d remedied the first round of rat issues, we realized what had happened.

This is a very real, “life happens” kind of farm story right here. I’m gonna be honest with you. Ready?

We store bear bait in one of our sheds, and that bear bait is normally in plastic containers. However, two years ago, we ended up storing some bear bait—a very large cardboard crate of expired granola—with the intention of transferring everything that was in that cardboard crate into five gallon plastic pails.

Do I need to tell you what happened? Or should I say, what didn’t happen?

The shed we store the bear bait in is not one that we frequently go into. And so when we finally went into that shed a few months after remedying Rat Explosion, Round One… you can guess what we found.

Or should I say, didn’t find.

The overwhelming majority of the granola that had been in that cardboard crate was gone.

And that explains why we had a sudden rat explosion in year ten.

What attracts rats?

You don’t need to leave out a giant crate of granola to attract rats, although it definitely does the trick. Any accessible feed will potentially draw rats. So if you’re one of those folks who free feeds, meaning has feed accessible to their animals for an extended amount of time, especially overnight, you could potentially be drawing rats to that area. Or if you’re storing your feed in such a way that rats can access it.

In cold climates in the winter, open water will attract rats. I’m not sure how to remedy this, as you need to have water available for your animals. But rats get thirsty too.

Once you have rats, they will love to steal any eggs left in nesting boxes, and they’ll also make short work of easy prey— in our case, meat bird chicks and turkey poults.

Rat traps I have tried:

After a rough springtime of the rats killing our chicks and poults, things calmed down and we went back to only seeing the occasional rat. I thought the traps we’d used at that time meant we’d beat them.

Silly me.

This winter, the rats appeared with a vengeance in a different barn—our chicken (layer) and duck coops—probably because it’s the only place on the farm where there is open water/feed in the winter.

So here’s what we’ve tried (in no particular order) and our experiences with them:

Water bucket traps

There are a couple different set ups for these, and you can build them or buy them. We had friends who had great success with these traps, but we never caught anything in ours. Not once.

Rat Poison

I can say that poison works because I’ve seen the nibble marks on the TomCat rat poison bricks—sometimes being gnawed down to nothing. But how well it works is a trust thing. I can see the rats ate it, but I don’t know how many ate it or where they went to die.

The problem with leaving rat poison out in the barn is the concern that other animals can find it — unless you put it in something small enough other animals can’t get to it. You can purchase bait stations for Tomcat poison, or you can put something together yourself, like shoving the poison into a section of PVC pipe and securing it behind a of couple screws.

Some people say you shouldn’t use rat poison because other animals eat the poisoned rats and then they get poisoned. I question this for a few reasons:

  • I was once told the reason rat poison works on rats is because rats can’t vomit, and therefore can’t get rid of the poison. Cats, however, obviously can vomit. So if they were to snack on a rat that had been poisoned, a cat would generally vomit that poison up.
  • There are also folks that say even if a cat did eat a poisoned rat, they’d have to eat a lot of poisoned rats for it to affect them.
  • Also, in my experience, cats don’t generally get excited about finding a dead rat. They want to deal with rats they’ve killed. So the chances of my barn cats tripping upon an hours dead rat and thinking it would make a good snack are pretty slim.


Pellet gun/firearm

If you’re willing to wait it out, you can certainly use a pellet gun/firearm of some sort to take on the issue. This has sometimes been effective for us, but it generally requires hanging out where they are and waiting for them to show up. But don’t be blasting holes through your barn walls or anything like that, and make sure you’re aware of what else is around you.

Barn cats

We have several barn cats here, but a few of them are especially ferocious killers. T-Rex. Gremblo, and Poofy Kitty are some felines you don’t want to mess with. However, once rats get to a certain size, cats generally won’t mess with them. Someone told me this once and I didn’t believe it, until I saw T-Rex and Gremblo team up on a big rat. And that’s when I saw how mean rats can be. A little tiny rat asserting itself is one thing, and the cats generally laugh at it and kill it anyway. A big rat, though? That’s another story all together.

My cats are great mousers and ratters, but they’re also not dumb. For every giant rat they don’t kill, there’s several smaller ones that are easier to get.

Traditional snap traps

Traditional snap traps are cheap (and they suck to set) but they’re effective. However, sometimes you get a really smart rat though that will figure out how to get the bait off without triggering the trap. Sometimes you get a really strong rat that will get snapped by the trap and then drag the trap away before dying. Another struggle is that you obviously can’t put these where anything else will get to them, as the traditional traps have no safety features and any curious dog, cat, chicken, or kid will set the trap off and snap themselves.

Upgraded snap traps

These have the same kill feature as a traditional snap trap, but have some built in safety mechanisms. The bait is put in through the bottom by removing a plug, and rats have to enter a tunnel of sorts to get to it. Then they are snapped inside. The traps themselves are much easier to set—you just pull down on the part I’m holding in the picture below—and no one except the rat will end up getting snapped.

This was by far the most effective trap in our last go round with rats. We bought a set of 4 UCatch Tunneled Rat Traps and placed them in various areas in three coops. I was always excited to go in to the barn and find a couple more had gone off since the last time I’d checked.

Electronic traps

This is another tunnel type trap that the rat walks into… and is electrocuted.

We’ve tried two brands of this type trap. The first one (Rat Zapper) didn’t get us any rats, but we lent it to a friend and they killed many, many rats with it. So many in fact, the switch burned out.

The second trap we tried (Owltra Electronic Rat Trap) netted us one dead rat. We had this in the same area as the upgraded snap traps, though, and it seemed as though the rats preferred heading to those—even though the same bait was used.

Rat traps I haven’t used:

There are many options of how to deal with rats. Here are a few we haven’t put to use yet, and why.

Sticky traps/glue traps

While the rodent does in fact stick to the trap, the trap only immobilizes them. It doesn’t kill them. You still have to kill the rats. IMO, if your point is to kill the rats, then… buy a trap that does the whole deed.

Live traps

My gut feeling was that every Tom Dick and Harry (or cat, possum, and raccoon, etc…) would have been in that trap before the rats got a chance to find it.

C02 cartridge traps

Mounted up off the ground so the rat has to actually stand up on it’s hind legs and peek up into it to get the bait. When a rat brushes against the trigger, a piston strikes its skull, killing it instantly. The dead rat drops to the ground and the trap resets immediately. Love the concept. Not a fan of the price. Having said that, I will probably end up buying one day just to try it out.

Terriers/mink

Eradicating rats by using dogs or mink is a super cool concept, and the videos are impressive to watch. But finding someone local with a trained rat/fox/Jack Russell terrier or a mink to go into my chicken coop/duck area to kill rats was a pretty dead end search—at least in what I found.

What I did find was an article that said if your rats are disappearing into your walls, terriers are not as effective in clearing them out. Basically, the rats will just wait it out until the dog is gone. I have a 104 year old barn, and she’s definitely got some holes. My rats happen to think the walls and space between the hayloft floor and the chicken coop ceiling is pretty dang awesome. It’s a great place to stick some poison, but I can also tell you the rats aren’t coming out of there if they know there is a dog waiting for them.

Tips for dealing with rats on a homestead:

Set up a camera in your barn. This will help you assess how big your problem is, and also let you know where they are coming from (if it’s not obvious from tracks or holes).

Refresh the bait often: We started with peanut butter, immediately got a rat in one of the snap traps, but then nothing got hit for a few days. I live where it is cold and my gut feeling is that frozen PB doesn’t have as much scent as PB at room temp, so make sure to refresh your bait often.

Change the bait: Rats are super intelligent. I find when I change the bait from PB to bacon grease to cheese to raw meat to cereal, I entice them more. Most successful bait we tried? Hands down, bacon grease.

Chicken coops are dusty and “messy” in a way that your basement probably isn’t. So it can be frustrating to try and keep the traps cleaned out.  For some reason my chickens felt the need to attempt a dust bath right next to my traps or peck around in the bedding right where I set the traps (which I set there, because that’s where the rats were coming out of the walls). So be aware that setting a trap in your barn is different than setting a trap under your kitchen sink or in your basement storage area.

Weather makes a difference. When it was really cold, we didn’t catch anything. There was nothing on camera, the rats weren’t coming out to play. Also, when it’s really cold, be aware the batteries might not work as well in an electronic trap.

Rats can definitely be a challenge on the homestead.

It seems like dealing with rats is all about getting them to the trap and then having a trap that does the deed effectively. The tricky part is that it also seems that rats will lose a few of their friends, take some time to regroup and make plans, and then come at things a different way. 

Rats are super intelligent, which makes war with them a definite challenge. I think it’s best to have a few options on hand and be willing to change up your approach.

Have you dealt with rodent issues on your farm? What did you find best worked in your situation?

— Amy Dingmann, 2-22-22

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