Keeping ‘The Queen’ Safe from the Pests of the Pivot
By Gary Lewis
They call alfalfa the 'Queen of Forage.' It is a legume that originated in Iran and today is planted all over the world. High in minerals, vitamins and protein, alfalfa has the highest feed value of all common hay crops.
It's low in fiber and high in energy. Just ask a Belding's ground squirrel – he has lots of energy. He will answer with a trill or a whistle as he scurries back toward the tunnel.
But he is the enemy of the queen.
For four months, the Belding's ground squirrel is an eating machine. He may chow a few insects or turn cannibal once in a while, but mainly he goes green. The Oregon State University Extension lists the Belding's ground squirrels as one of the most significant enemies of the queen of forage.
Squirrels eat the above-ground parts of the plant and cover the crop with mounds of soil. The mounds also damage mowers. Burrows in irrigated fields cause water loss, weaken dams and levees and increase erosion.
One study found that, in a single day, 355 ground squirrels can consume the same amount of forage as one cow, and 96 squirrels can consume the same amount as 1 sheep. Another study showed that 123 Belding's ground squirrels per acre consumed 1,790 pounds of alfalfa per acre. That's 14.55 pounds per squirrel over the course of four months.
We can save the queen if we start early in the season and we all pull together as a team.
Most damage occurs before the first cutting. According to the OSU Extension Service, 45% or more of the first cutting of alfalfa may be lost to ground squirrels. That's a lot of feed that doesn't make it to market and explains why some landowners are happy to host hunters on their irrigation pivots.
In Oregon, Belding's ground squirrels can be found from Redmond, Bend and Klamath Falls, east to the Idaho border and south to the California and Nevada borders. Base camp in and around Crane, Hereford, Bly, Lakeview, Christmas Valley and other high desert burgs. Establish relationships with landowners prior to the hunt or contact an outfitter for access to private ground.
The precision shooter, armed with a .17HMR or a .204 Ruger or a bull-barrel .223 Remington topped with a high-magnification scope can make short work of free-loading ground squirrels.
Klamath, Lake and Harney counties often have the best shooting early. Action can be fast in March and April, but May is prime time. By mid-June, the grass and crops may be too tall. Good shooting can be had again after the first cutting. On a good day, you'll save a couple tons of alfalfa and maybe a mower blade or two.
A word of caution: action can be fast and furious, but there's no excuse for driving out across a planted field, shooting holes in expensive irrigation lines (you'll pay for them) or endangering livestock or ranch hands. Keep it cool and you will be invited back.Gary Lewison