When we do tours of the farm I am always surprised how often the topic of barn cats comes up. Even though they seem to be a secondary aspect to a farm which primarily produces food, people seem to recognize the necessity and challenges of keeping cats around a farm.
First, let me begin with the “Why”. Why even keep cats on a farm? Our father has preached on this topic since we were kids. There is a sort of cosmic equilibrium between cats, snakes and mice/rats. If that equilibrium gets out of balance horrible outcomes will ensue. If you have a farm you certainly have grains and vegetables around which attract mice/rats (m/r). The m/r in turn attract snakes. Snakes are good, and even welcome on our farm, up and until the point where our children are naming the copperheads. So, we bring in the cats to reduce the m/r and thus reduce the snakes.
It all seems straight forward until you get one of these populations out of balance. We have looked up in the rafters of our barns in the past and literally seen 100’s of mice at night. We have over-reacted and found ourselves looking up in the rafters a few months later and seeing dozens and dozens of cats. I honestly cannot say that an over population of cats is any less sanitary than an over population of m/r. I also speak from experience when I say a poorly managed population of cats can spiral out of control just about as fast as a population of m/r.
So, we have learned to live with cats…, and m/r…, and even snakes in small controlled populations. If all is in balance we have very few issues with m/r and we might find one snake per year in one of our barns, maybe even just one every couple of years.
This brings us to how we manage barn cats. We have tried to adopt stray or feral cats on numerous occasions. Our county even has a $10 barn cat adoption program. 100% of the barn cat “adoptions” we have tried ran away within days of release. As noble an idea as it is, we no longer do it. We simply don’t have the time to invest just to watch our investment run off into the woods never to be seen again. What has worked for us very well is to find weaned kittens (any variety will do) and bring them to the farm young. We keep them in a large crate for one week (in the barn) with water, food and litter, and a box with an old towel. We then move all those components to a location where we want them to stay and allow them begin exploring and making the farm their home.
At around 5-6 months of age we round up the cats and take them all to get fixed – hence the population control. Our county has a low-cost neuter/spay program for $35/cat. We pay an extra $5/cat for a pain medicine shot not only because it helps the cat cope, but equally it keeps the cat groggy, less stressed and easier to handle on the way home. We do not purchase cones of shame, no-lick sprays, monogrammed cat sweaters or catnip-stuffed mice toys – avoid the up-sells. Back to the farm and back to the large crate for a week with all the former items for some time to heal and not chase things around. After that they’re good to go – official barn cats!
If you don’t fix the cats they will breed like rabbits (I’m not too sure that saying shouldn’t have been “breed like cats”). Here’s what will happen; the females will find an obscure place to have their litter. Her kittens will be wild due to their lack of imprinting with people and it will be very difficult to catch them to get them fixed, and the cycle will start all over. The males will mostly run off looking for other females, except for the “new” males who will all of a sudden show up looking for your females. The remaining males will darn near kill each other competing over their territory. All that goes away if they are fixed. Calm, easy-going mousers with no drive to kill each other or run off somewhere.
We feed our cats only once a day and not too much. Fat, lazy cats are no use to us, they belong in window sills in the city. While we don’t expect them to live on m/r alone, we do expect them to work for their keep. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 says, “if a man will not work he shall not eat.” We believe this verse should also apply to cats.
We keep a lot of chickens on the place and here is what we have discovered about combining cats and chickens. Cats should first be introduced to mature chickens, preferably a large, possessive rooster with a flock of hens. This fella will do more for training a barn cat about respecting chickens then you ever could. We have never had a barn cat mess with a mature chicken. Having said that, we do not let our cats near chicks, as they will make short work of them. Most chicken breeds around 6 weeks old (with some protection) seem to be fine – our cats rarely even give them a moment’s attention. We do employee electric net fences quite a bit in our operation so that is also a factor.
We are also careful to keep cats out of seedings and plant starts as well, as those will quickly become litter boxes and sunning beds. We once had a couple cats play for some hours in a germination chamber and destroyed half a season of tomato and pepper starts.
So, for better or worse cats are something we believe belongs on a farm. While they do not directly produce anything profitable, they are a key management tool in helping to keep some balance in the life of the farm …and our 6-year-old daughter loves them; probably more than they want to be loved most of the time.
If you have any thoughts or tips regarding barn cats we would live to hear about them. Just share your comment below or email us.