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antique device to keep flies off of horses
EARLY FLY CONTROL: This device helped keep horseflies from biting working horses in the field. It was draped over the horse just before it was hitched to an implement.

Flies galore bring up question of early control methods

Throwback Tech: Pioneers and modern farmers have tried unique ways to control flies.

The 2019 season may well become notorious for several things. One of them will be flies.

How bad is it? I use the narrow, sticky fly-trap papers in my small sheep barn, and usually go through three or four boxes of 10 a season. This year by late July, I’d gone through at least 80 strips. I would also spray around the barn and spray the sheep.

One day my wife, Carla, was going to the local farm supply store. “Get another couple boxes of fly strips,” I told her. Our grandson, Graham, was going with her. A typical 9-year-old, he goes after flies with the spray bomb can, one at a time, until I stop him.

“We got four boxes,” she quipped later. “Graham said two wouldn’t be enough.”  

Spray foggers

One day Carla decided we should buy a fogger. She remembered her dad using one in the ’70s to control flies in the barns. I remembered using one, too — it was electric, with a green top and silver bottom. You filled it with fly spray and fogged the holding area where milk cows came in. You just had to be careful not to let spray drift onto feed or water.

“Do they still make them?” I asked.

Carla checked the internet, and sure enough, they still exist. Then she saw one at a farm store. She bought it, but unfortunately when she opened the box, there was no electric cord. In small letters on the box, it said “propane fogger.” Apparently, people on camping trips don’t like flies either. She’s still hunting for a fogger.

Her vendetta against flies is personal. They bite, and bites itch.

Unique approach

Over a century ago, early farmers and ranchers were bothered by flies, too. I coach the local FFA wildlife judging team and took them to the Flint Hills in Kansas this summer for a national competition. We visited the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, owned by The Nature Conservancy and operated by the U.S. Parks Service, near Strong City, Kan.

Once a private ranch, it featured both a house and three-story barn made of local stone. Covered by an underground sea millions of years ago, the Flint Hills feature limestone near the surface, full of fossils of sea creatures, which make good building blocks.        

Inside the barn I found an odd-looking contraption. It turns out that this early version of a mesh-type enclosure fit over a horse. Its main purpose was fly control! I would have never figured it out, except historians placed an explanation next to it.

Before draft horses headed to the field, farmers would place this device over them. When a horsefly bit the horse, it would flex its muscles. That would cause the cords and leather pieces of the device to move, knocking off other horseflies.

This odd device was proof that even early ranchers and farmers used more than a fly swatter to combat the pesky insects. Thankfully, control methods have evolved, although they’re still not perfect. Imagine how many fly watters I would need to control flies in my small sheep barn this summer!  

Comments? Email tom.bechman@farmprogress.com.

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