How to Manage Pests

UC Pest Management Guidelines

Alfalfa

Voles (Meadow Vole, Meadow Mice)

Scientific Name: Microtus spp.

(Reviewed 7/16, updated 7/16)

In this Guideline:


DESCRIPTION OF THE PEST

Voles are also called meadow mice. Adults:

  • Larger than house mice but smaller than rats
  • Blunt-nosed stocky rodents
  • Full grown length is 4 to 6 inches
  • Small ears and eyes
  • Short legs
  • Short tails
  • Coarse fur is usually dark gray or grayish brown

Compared to deer mice, voles have a more robust body, less obvious ears, and a relatively shorter tail. Vole ears are at least partly obscured by the hair in front of them and their tails are about one-half to one-quarter the length of their head and body combined. Deer mice have relatively large and prominent, fleshy ears, white belly and feet, and their tail is bi-colored and more than 70% the length of their head and body.

Voles live in colonies and are active both day and night, all year round. Females bear 5 to 10 litters per year, with peaks of reproduction in spring and fall. Because voles mature rapidly and bear multiple litters yearly, numbers can increase quickly reaching as high as hundreds of voles per acre. In many areas, populations peak every 4 to 8 years, and then decline fairly rapidly. Voles live in areas such as irrigated pastures, fencerows, or weedy ditchbanks, where the soil is suitable for burrowing and where vegetation provides cover. Grasses and other dense ground cover provide food and shelter that favor the buildup of vole populations. They usually avoid sandy soils. The soil of the Tulelake Basin of Northern California is a location that is highly favorable for voles.

You can recognize vole activity by the narrow runways in grass or other ground cover, connecting numerous shallow burrows with openings about 1-1/2 inches in diameter. Voles seldom travel far from their burrows and runways, usually less than 10 feet (3 m) from the nest. Droppings are about 0.18 inch (4.5 mm) long and greenish when fresh, turning brown or gray with exposure to the environment. Sometimes fresh leaves or other cuttings are found in these trails.

Five species of voles, genus Microtus, occur in California. The most widespread species in the state is the California vole (Microtus californicus), which occurs in the Central Valley and throughout the length of the coast range. In potatoes, most damage occurs in the Klamath Basin, where the montane vole (M. montanus) is found.

DAMAGE

If left unchecked, voles will cause extensive damage to alfalfa. This damage includes consumption of taproots and above-ground vegetation that can result in

  • reduced vigor, mortality of alfalfa plants, or both
  • loss of irrigation water down burrow systems
  • chewing on underground drip lines

In winter where alfalfa goes dormant, vole damage to roots and crowns are often not apparent until green-up the following spring. As such, much care must be taken to ensure low vole numbers heading into winter. as the burrows are very difficult to detect and bait as the crop matures.

MANAGEMENT

The best management programs for voles keep numbers at low levels; once vole numbers reach high levels, control becomes much more difficult and costly. Vegetation management and the proper use of exclusion keep damage to a minimum. Poisonous bait (either multiple-dose anticoagulants* or zinc phosphide*) can control voles that reach harmful numbers. All field-use rodenticides for voles are restricted use materials that require the applicator to be a private or commercial certified applicator or to be under the supervision of a certified applicator. Some require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use.

Biological Control

Predators such as coyotes, foxes, badgers, weasels, owls, and hawks feed on meadow voles; however, predation is rarely, if ever, a major factor in controlling a rapidly increasing vole population.

Cultural Control
Habitat Management

Because of the vegetative nature of alfalfa, habitat management is rarely a viable option in these crops.

Exclusion

Exclusionary fencing consisting of aluminum flashing can be used along field borders. The fencing should be buried at least 6 inches below ground and should extend 12 inches above ground. Drive rebar or wooden stakes into the ground every 15 feet to provide support for the fencing. The efficacy of such fencing is greatly increased if bare soil is present around the base of the fence. Be aware that equipment must frequently move in and out of fields, thereby limiting sites where fencing is practical. Fencing is expensive, so significant damage should be expected to justify the cost of installation.

Flood irrigation

Where still feasible, flood irrigation can help control vole populations. When a field is flooded, the voles must come to the surface or drown. When at the surface, they can be picked off by a number of predators; growers and their dogs can also actively seek out voles at this time to further reduce population size.

Monitoring and Treatment Decisions

It is important to monitor for voles carefully. Otherwise, you may not notice damage until it is too late to prevent significant injury.

Make sure to check ditch banks, fencerows, roadsides, and other areas where permanent vegetation favors the buildup of voles. Dense grass is their preferred habitat.

Starting in midwinter, monitor monthly in cover crops, weedy areas, and alfalfa fields looking for:

  • Active runways: 1- to 2-inch wide surface paths that lead to silver dollar-sized burrow openings.
  • Place snap traps in runways to detect pests. Scatter around the field to identify active areas needing baiting. Use expanded trigger traps to avoid having to use bait.
  • Fresh vole droppings and short pieces of clipped vegetation, especially grass stems, in runways.
Baiting

If you find damaging infestations or numbers increasing within orchard, vineyard, or vegetable crops, poison baits can be used during the dormant season to greatly reduce vole numbers. Baiting can also reduce voles in adjacent areas before they have a chance to invade. Single- and multiple-dose baits are available, but there may be baiting restrictions in some areas to protect endangered species. It is imperative that you understand and follow the label directions for use. In particular, please note that poison baits cannot be applied within orchard, vineyard, or vegetable crops from green up (spring) until after harvest occurs.

For small infestations, scatter the bait in or near active vole runways and burrows according to the label directions. For larger areas and where the label permits, you can make broadcast applications using a belly grinder-type seeder or a vehicle with a tailgate seeder. Broadcast application rates vary, depending upon estimated numbers of voles and type of toxicant. Both single-dose (e.g., zinc phosphide*) and multiple-dose (e.g., first-generation anticoagulants, chlorophacinone* and diphacinone*) poisons are used for meadow vole control in orchard, vineyard, and vegetable crops. These are restricted-use pesticides that require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use

In ditchbanks and other non-cropland sites, bait should be applied in fall or spring before the voles' reproduction peaks to slow or prevent populations from expanding into the crop. However, application within an orchard, vineyard, or vegetable field is restricted to the nonbearing season, so timing is key to prevent a population explosion during the growing season. Bait acceptance will depend on the amount and kind of other food available. When baiting for voles with anticoagulants, you should remove all aboveground carcasses by burying them underground, or by bagging and disposing them in the trash. This will reduce potential secondary poisoning hazards.

Within alfalfa fields, only zinc phosphide* can be applied. Zinc phosphide* is applied directly to vole burrows and runways through spot treatments or broadcast applications. If overused, problems with bait shyness can occur. As such, zinc phosphide should not be applied more than once over a 6-month period. Additionally, zinc phosphide* must be applied when new growth is less than 2-inches tall. Carefully read the label for more information on restrictions for zinc phosphide* application in alfalfa.

Trapping

Trapping is not typically practical as voles often number in the thousands over even relatively small areas.

Fumigants

Fumigation is not typically effective because of the shallow, open nature of vole burrow systems and the large number of voles. However, it is occasionally used in artichokes given the deeper structure of vole burrow systems in the crop.

Repellents

Repellents are not effective in preventing damage.

*User must be a certified applicator or be under the supervision of someone who is. Some products also require a permit from the county agricultural commissioner for purchase or use.

[Precautions]

PUBLICATION

[UC Peer Reviewed]

UC IPM Pest Management Guidelines: Alfalfa
UC ANR Publication 3430

Vertebrates

R. Baldwin, Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, UC Davis

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