No, seriously. Hordes of gigantic feral hogs are on a rampage throughout the US southwest and other areas. Aside from scaring the children and scattering the chickens, they are genuinely a major threat to US agriculture and yet another headache for farmers who are already suffering under the impacts of climate change and President* Trump’s trade policies. That includes corn growers and other biofuel crop farmers, too.
What Is It With These Feral Hogs?
Call them feral hogs, swine, or pigs. Just don’t call them late for dinner because they’ll barge in anyways.
The topic of feral hogs burst into the media spotlight earlier this week, but it’s nothing new to those who have been grappling with the threat for years.
AP reported on the problem back in 2011, noting that a single feral hog can weigh hundreds of pounds. Also, they have been known to eat calves.
Feral hogs are also smart, they travel in packs, and they reproduce like rabbits, so imagine 30 to 50 highly intelligent 300-pound bunnies rooting through your biofuel crop like furry bulldozers and eating the occasional calf that happens to wander by, and then heading to your front yard for dessert, and it’s not difficult to see why someone would want to grab for the AK at the sight.
Where Did All These Feral Hogs Come From?
I know, right? Feral hogs have taken up residence in the US ever since the 1500s, but the population was relatively small for about 400 years.
That all changed after the 1980s, when Texas popularized the sport of hog hunting. Instead of winnowing the population, the goal became to increase their numbers and introduce them into new areas, to provide more opportunities for recreational hunting.
Oh the irony, it burns!
Adding to the burn, duck and deer hunters are finding their opportunities diminished where feral hogs are active. Hogs have been known to destroy native habitats for other popular hunting targets, and they can destroy hunters’ hiding spots, too.
Texas is still the epicenter of feral hog activity in the US. Here’s an update from Texas A&M University:
“Of the 4 to 5 million feral hogs in the United States, an estimated 2.6 million call Texas home. Feral hogs can be found in 99% of Texas counties and cause an estimated $52 million in damages to Texas agricultural enterprises each year. Additionally, feral hogs are causing an increasing amount of damage to landscapes in suburban/urban areas across the state.”
Biofuel Crops, Hunters, & Feral Hogs
From a biofuel perspective, the feral hog situation builds the case for not growing biofuel crops on land.
That includes camelina and other non-food crops, too.
Feral hogs are mainly known for destroying corn, soybeans and other food crops that have been used to produce biofuel, but our friends over at Farm Progress took a look at the situation last year and issued a dire warning for all biofuel crop growers, edible or not:
“Bill Hamrick, a wildlife associate with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said wild hogs use their snouts to turn over soil as they search for food.
“‘I heard someone say that if it has a calorie and they can get their mouth around it, hogs will eat it’, Hamrick said. ‘Wild hogs are a generalist species. They eat whatever they can find year-round.’”
Freshly planted seeds are also tasty meals for hogs, not just seedlings or mature plants.
Next Steps For Biofuel
So now what? Algae crops are one alternative, though it’s probably just a matter of time before feral hogs discover how fun it is to dive into a commercial algae pond.
Seaweed is another emerging option. The US Department of Energy has been devoting research dollars to the field of growing seaweed for biofuel, under its MARINER initiative.
MARINER is under the wing of the agency’s ARPA-E office for funding cutting edge energy research. One good example of just how cutting is a $500,000 award to the University of Southern Mississippi, for a seaweed growing system called Adjustadepth, short for “Adjustable Depth Seaweed Growth System.”
The project focuses on kelp, which is already commonly used for food, animal feed, and fertilizer all around the world. Scaling up to biofuel is the challenge. ARPA-E notes that in 2016, “the world produced approximately 26 million wet metric tons of seaweed,” primarily through labor-intensive methods.
That thing about labor-intensive needs to change, and that’s where Adjustadepth comes in. Here’s the rundown from ARPA-E (break added):
“The technology will enable precise positioning of large farm structures to maximize productivity and actively avoid surface hazards such as weather or marine traffic. The seaweed will grow while affixed to support ropes strung between concentric rings.
“The structure will have automated buoyancy compensation devices to optimize depth minute-by-minute for maximum light intensity and minimum wave impact, as well as automatically lowering during storms or to allow large ships to pass over it.”
Got all that? The system can also automatically “dive” to follow deeper nutrient rich zones at night.
The ARPA-E funding cycle for the project concluded last month, and CleanTechnica is reaching out to USM for more insights on the seaweed biofuel field, which hopefully will not fall prey to seagoing feral hogs any time soon.
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Photo: via US Department of Agriculture.
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