A bumper crop of pocket gophers
By Jim Stordahl U of M Extension Educator Updated May 5, 2016 (0)
As I drive around the region, I notice there seems to be a bumper crop of pocket gophers in the road ditches and hay fields. For anyone that produces alfalfa, one is always alert to these pesky critters that fashion dirt mounds creating another layer of difficulty for harvest. If you produce forage crops, the pocket gopher is your enemy.
Pocket gophers are burrowing rodents so named because they have fur-lined pouches outside of their mouth, one on each side of the face. These pockets, which are capable of being turned inside out, are used for carrying food. The forepaws are large-clawed and the lips close behind their large incisors, all marvelous adaptations to their underground existence.
Gophers have small external ears and small eyes. As sight and sound are severely limited, gophers are highly dependent on the sense of touch. The whiskers on their face are very sensitive to touch and assist pocket gophers while traveling about in their dark tunnels. The tail is sparsely haired and also serves as a sensory mechanism guiding gophers’ backward movements. The tail is also important in thermoregulation, acting as a radiator.
Pocket gophers feed on plants in three ways: 1) they feed on roots that they encounter when digging; 2) they may go to the surface, venturing only a body length or so from their tunnel opening to feed on above-ground vegetation; and 3) they pull vegetation into their tunnel from below. Pocket gophers eat forbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees.
Alfalfa and dandelions are some of the most preferred and nutritious foods for pocket gophers. Generally, they prefer perennial forbs, but they will also eat annual plants with fleshy underground storage structures. Plains pocket gophers consume primarily grasses, especially those with rhizomes, but they seem to prefer forbs when they are succulent in spring and summer. Wouldn’t be nice if they would just eat the quackgrass roots and leave everything else alone — and didn’t make mounds?
Portions of plants consumed also vary seasonally. Gophers utilize above-ground portions of vegetation mostly during the growing season, when the vegetation is green and succulent. Height and density of vegetation at this time of year may also offer protection from predators, reducing the risk of short surface trips. Year-round, however, roots are the major food source. Many trees and shrubs are clipped just above ground level. This occurs principally during winter under snow cover. Seedlings also have their roots clipped by pocket gophers.
Damage caused by gophers includes destruction of underground utility cables and irrigation pipe, direct consumption and smothering of forage by earthen mounds, and change in species composition on rangelands by providing seedbeds (mounds) for invading weeds. Ever wonder why how those nasty weeds get started in the ditches? Gopher mounds are a perfect environment to get thistles started from the seed blowing during the previous summer.
Gophers damage trees by stem girdling and clipping, root pruning, and possibly root exposure caused by burrowing. Gopher mounds dull and plug sickles when harvesting hay or alfalfa, and soil brought to the surface as mounds is more likely to erode. In irrigated areas, gopher tunnels can channel water runoff, causing loss of surface irrigation water.
Gopher tunnels in ditch banks and earthen dams can weaken these structures, causing water loss by seepage and piping through a bank or the complete loss or washout of a canal bank. The presence of gophers also increases the likelihood of badger activity, which can also cause considerable damage.
Next week, I share information on different control methods of this bothersome pest.
This information is adapted from Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. A publication from University of Nebraska Extension that is available at all of the finer Extension offices. For more information contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-450-2465.
Stordahl lives on a farm near McIntosh and works as an Extension Educator for the University of Minnesota.
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