Thursday, July 21, 2011

Barn Cats

Our homesteading group just finished Marjory Wildcraft's Backyard Food Production where she discusses everything on her property that relates to raising food for her family within a self contained system. Her goal is to raise everything they need, including feed for animals, on her own property. One of the animals she covered was dogs and their uses on a small homestead. What she didn't cover were barn cats.

You may not think of cats as being that essential to a homestead, but where I live, they're very important. In most rural situations, you have field mice, rats, gophers, moles, voles, ground squirrels, and probably a number of other rodents that can wreck havoc on a garden or eat plenty of grains and other food stored for yourself and your livestock. Rodents also carry diseases in their droppings, another reason to eliminate them or greatly reduce their numbers. They're notorious for destroying property, chewing through almost any type of material, including electrical wiring, insulation, and other essential construction materials.

Cats can live pretty independently without outside resources when feasting on these small pests. At our homestead, we currently have 5 barn cats. While we don't have a "barn" per se, we do have a chicken coop, a large garden, and our farmhouse with the hopes of adding a goat shed or barn in the near future. I use the term "barn cat" because that's what we always called them when we were growing up and it refers to cats that are not fed a full diet of commercial cat food so that they will hunt for the bulk of their meals.

Siesta, our largest cat and best hunter!

Now I know someone will think that we're starving these poor cats, but I assure you, they are happy and healthy, doing what cats were designed by God to do - hunt! We love on them, enjoy them, and meet their basic needs, but we consider them a working animal on our little homestead farm. It would be easy to start doting on them and spoil them to where they won't hunt, so we have a routine and way we do things in order to keep them happy and hunting.

When we get new kittens to raise as barn cats, we actually keep them in the laundry room for the first couple of weeks, making sure we handle them as much as possible. We don't want ferrel (wild) cats, but rather tame cats that will hunt. A ferrel cat can be a real problem. Trust me on this, I've had to have rabie shots when I was bit by a ferrel barn cat and while it isn't as bad as everyone has heard, it certainly isn't my idea of a great event! You don't want to worry about visitors to your homestead having to go through an experience like rabie shots because their child cornered a ferrel kitty trying to pet it.

Soleil, sister to Siesta, and almost identical!

After a couple of weeks, we move the kittens to the garage, but we don't let them out. We play with them, handle them, and love on them, but we expand their area. When we want them to come to us, we call "Here kitty, kitty, kitty" and give them a wet treat (canned cat food). Just a bite, not a lot. Finally, after another couple of weeks, we start letting them out of the garage for short periods of time, using the treat to get them to come back when we're ready. Over the weeks we extend the period of time they are out of the garage and eventually, we lock them out of the garage during the day, feeding them a small amount of dry cat food only at night when we bring them inside.

Because we live in an area with lots of hawks, owls, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes, and other animals that consider cats a nice dinner, we do bring them in at night. Yes, this defeats some of the purpose for having them, especially since cats are nocturnal and a lot of what they hunt is nocturnal as well, but if we don't bring them in, we run a high risk of losing them. I give my cats vaccinations and spay or nueter them when I want to control the numbers and to keep the males from spraying and marking their territory, so I've invested not only time, but money in these felines. To lose one is costly, so we try to bring them in as much as possible. And since they are trained for the wet treat, they're pretty easy to call into the garage.

Marco, who's fur is a lot longer than it looks here!
See more of Marco HERE.

Marjory Wildcraft uses the bi-products of her butchering to feed her dogs and if I were to start butchering on a regular basis, like Marjory does, I could do the same. I could also stop getting the cats fixed and leave them out at night. Doing these two things would keep their numbers down to a reasonable number, but since it isn't necessary at the moment, I don't see the need to do so. My food bill for the wet treat is very minimal, even with 5 cats, because they get one bite a day in the evening in order to get them to come in.

Keep in mind that if you wait until it is dark, you're not going to get the cats inside. You need to call them in just before the sun sets. Otherwise, only the very hungry cat will come for a treat. This has happened to us on occasion and we've learned that it's just best to wait a while, try one more time, and if we're not successful, the cat spends the night outside. For some reason, they usually are the first in the next night and they seem plenty tired the next day!

Ricco. What can I say; I'm not sure he's totally sane.

There are a few things you might consider when selecting a barn cat. Don't get white or light colored cats if at all possible. I made this mistake on our last round of kittens, and although they were darling and irresistible at the time, it was not a wise choice. The light colored kittens, especially the white, show up like a neon sign in the dark. If you're cat isn't in that evening, it has a high chance of not making it back the next morning. On the plus side, the white cats are well hidden when it snows, but the dark cats look like bushes sticking up out of the snow, so they're still the better choice.

Look for shorthaired cats if at all possible. The longer the hair, the more foxtails, burrs, and other stickers the cat will pick up in his fur. This requires more grooming on the cat's part and they look a bit unhealthy as a result. I think the exception would be if you could find a Maine Coon.

Maine Coon's are one of the only native breeds to North America, if I'm not mistaken. They're very large, which makes them less appealing to certain predators and means they have a better chance in a fight. Also, they're excellent hunters. So the trade off of a longer coat would probably be worth it. If you live where there is plenty of snow, Maine Coons do well in a cold winter environment. With large paws and an extra toe, they can move in the snow easily and use their large bushy tail to wrap around them. And their kind personality and intelligence make them a good choice for families.

Pablo, a real sweety and my next top notch mouser!

Despite the fact that we still have gopher issues, an occasional mouse, or some other rodent, if it weren't for our five barn cats, we would be overrun with these pests and no amount of organic repellent would be able to compete. Barn cats are just one weapon in our arsenal in the fight against unwanted critters, but I would say, without a doubt, that they are also our first line of defense.

Many of you may be allergic to cat hair. Actually, I have a mild allergy to them and my husband is even more allergic. Keeping the cats outside curbs a lot of the issues as does as does not handling them and washing our hands after being outside. The girls do most of the loving on the cats for us, but I've learned that if I just don't pick them up I'm usually fine. Instead, I give them a good scratching and rub here and there and they seem perfectly content with the attention. Don't leave your patio chair cushions that are covered in fabric outside when not in use or your cats will make a bed of them. An old dog bed in the garage makes the perfect sleeping quarters for cats and many a night I've found all 5 of them curled up next to the dog!

I hope a few of you who haven't considered cats in the past will find this information helpful in handling pest issues around your homestead. If it's as big a problem for you as it has been for us, I think you'll find cats a welcome addition!


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