'Carefree' farming

'Carefree' farming

RURAL MONTICELLO – Fred and Ginger are living the good life.

They have a brand-new dog house, a doting human and 3 acres to romp and bark at wildlife to their hearts' content. The barking-at-wildlife part is actually their job.

The Australian shepherd and black Labrador-mix recently moved from local animal shelters to the Diversified Farm at Allerton Park. Their presence is an alternative effort to control the wildlife that eats the crops at the farm.

"We were trying to find ways to help solve our deer problem – especially in some of the more confined areas, and in as humane a way as possible," said David Schejbal, director of the University of Illinois Office of Continuing Education, which oversees Allerton Park.

The park was opened to hunters the last two years in an effort to control the burgeoning deer population, which was destroying the plants and young trees. Schejbal said he and other park officials wanted to try something different to keep deer, rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs and other wildlife from eating the crops.

Todd Statzer, manager of the Diversified Farm, raised sheep for 15 years and successfully used dogs to keep coyotes from killing his lambs. He's eager to see if they'll work guarding crops.

"Raccoons are probably a bigger challenge for us here than the deer are," Statzer said, noting that an electrified fence and chicken wire surrounding a 2-acre plot at the farm will keep out most wildlife, but not raccoons.

"Nothing keeps out the raccoons," he said. "Raccoons have such an affinity for sweet corn, they'll climb an electrified fence, getting shocked all the way. But they will not mess with the dogs."

The Champaign County Humane Society helped find appropriate dogs and provided advice on living quarters at the farm.

Jason Smith, director of the humane society, chose the dogs with the help of an Urbana animal behaviorist with the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Ginger, the black lab, came from the Rantoul animal shelter, and Fred, the shepherd, came from the Vermilion County animal shelter.

"I wanted to make sure the dogs were suited to outdoor living, and they were suitable together," Smith said. "Third was to look for dogs that would be curious enough or would instinctually go out and be moving around the perimeter to distract wildlife.

"We picked these dogs. We got really lucky. They are both very good with people and very good with other dogs, but they are not completely attached to people. We don't think they will be depressed because people won't be with them overnight."

Smith provided foster care for the dogs in his home to help socialize them before they went to Allerton. Students participating in an Alternative Spring Break program at Allerton Park fenced a 3-acre field and built a dog house.

This year, Statzer will plant vegetables in the 3-acre field patrolled by the dogs and in the 2-acre field surrounded by the electrified fence. He'll compare the yields of both fields to see if the dogs are helping keep the wildlife from the crops in the 3-acre plot.

He said the edible soybeans will tell the tale. Last year at the Diversified Farm, Statzer planted a half-acre of edible soybeans, then watched as deer and turkeys ate all the plants.

"That's what's going to tell me the most, that particular crop," he said. "I already know when it's not fenced and there aren't dogs, they eat them all."

Statzer walks the fence line with the dogs morning and evening. They haven't seen any deer yet, but Statzer has seen deer tracks through the fields. One morning last week, Fred flushed a quail and chased it.

"I've already noticed him smelling and looking around, so he's already got the instinct," Statzer said. "I think they are going to work out well."

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