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Beginner’s Guide to Livestock Guardian Animals

BY PAUL DORRANCE

As consumer demand continues to skyrocket for pasture-based meats, so too will farmer demand for methods to keep their livestock safe outside of confinement. A good fence goes a long way towards peace of mind, but today’s predators are getting more bold, more crafty and more prevalent than ever before. Exacerbating this issue is the reality that the vast majority of farmers hold an off-farm job to make ends meet, further removing them from the historic role of in-place shepherd and full-time caretaker. In a pasture-based system, how are we to successfully raise livestock for our customers when everything else is trying to eat them first?


Just about every species of livestock could use a protective hand every now and then. Poultry, sheep and goats are no brainers because, as they say: “Everything eats chicken.” However, even young cattle and bison are targets for predatory vultures, bears, cougars and wolves in many parts of the United States. Gone are the days when you could combine some common sense with a bullet to combat predation through the Three S’s (Shoot, Shovel, Shut Up), and society is mostly better off because of that in my opinion. That said, the moral mandate for non-lethal predator control definitely presents a unique set of challenges for the modern livestock rancher.

Enter the hero of the day … Livestock Guardian Animals.

DEFINING TERMS

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I think it would be wise to outline at least some of the caveats for this topic.

First and foremost: Livestock Guardian Animals are not a “cure-all.” You cannot expect to experience the trauma of a predator attack, go pick up your guardian of choice at the local store, apply three times per day where it hurts, and expect miraculous results in 48 hours. Trust me — I’ve tried. Livestock Guardian Animals are a tool, a control measure to be used in conjunction with other methods in an effort to create an environment of safety for our animals. They work best as part of a systematic approach to predator control

Livestock Guardian Animals are a lot of extra work, extra time and extra money. In theory, they pay for all of that extra with peace of mind and more live animals to sell for a profit, but that theory isn’t always an easy one to prove. Regardless of which animal you choose to work for you, they all have specific limitations and require some amount of training, maintenance and support from you. If you are already strapped for time, adding a guardian puppy isn’t going to help. If you aren’t handy or comfortable with DIY animal care, adding a donkey becomes a liability instead of an asset. Yes, they do a job for us, but they also add jobs to our daily and seasonal task lists.

Lastly, and I think we all know this but somehow act surprised when it turns out to be true, Livestock Guardian Animals are not perfect. They fail, whether it is because of the animal itself, the situation we put them in, or pure bad luck. Personally, I struggle in this regard — setting an animal up for failure then wondering what went wrong when they do indeed fail. Having a realistic initial expectation for your Livestock Guardian Animal and keeping a close eye on the changing situation that it is operating within are the keys to success here.

Ultimately, what I’m trying to say is that Livestock Guardians Animals are not without costs. They are effective in the right situations, but they need to be added to your livestock enterprise after a period of intensive education, consideration and decision-making on your part. Please, please, please avoid some of the mistakes that I have made by adding Livestock Guardian Animals to your system intentionally instead of haphazardly.

GUARDIAN SPECIES

One of the key concepts to understand in this discussion is that different animals guard effectively using different innate traits dominant within their species. Generally, we can put guardian species into two different buckets: those that guard out of an affinity for their livestock and those that guard out of sheer belligerence and orneriness. Knowing which is which and taking a good look at your current operation will allow you to select a guardian species that will work best for you.

Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) are the predominant species in the first bucket. There’s a reason we call them “mankind’s best friend.” All the qualities that make us love dogs (except for you crazy cat people out there), like being loyal, protective, attentive and loving, make them exceptional guardian animals. When properly “bonded” to livestock, LGDs adopt them into their pack and care for them appropriately. It doesn’t matter whether you have poultry, small ruminants or large animals — LGDs can and will guard them with their life, because of the innate affinity dogs have for their tribe.

In the belligerent category are donkeys, llamas and alpacas. They couldn’t care less about your sheep or goats; they just hate dogs. Or commotion. Or life in general. They are mean-spirited and ornery, which is exactly what you want between your four-legged livelihood and a hungry predator. Generally, these animals simply dislike what they don’t know, and react accordingly. However, they can still get used to familiarity or routine. For example, a family dog that is very familiar becomes acceptable to a donkey, while a strange neighbor dog gets chased off. They don’t like a fuss and will run towards the commotion of an attack event while the sheep are running away, just to see what’s happening.

Understanding these differences is critical to correctly selecting a guardian species that will best suit your farm’s needs.

FIELD LESSONS

Now for my favorite part … “Story Time with Paul.” But careful — I’m going to liberally apply the rule that we Air Force pilots use in all our stories: 10 percent truth! In all seriousness, I love hearing other folks tell farm stories, and think it often represents the best way to learn their lessons and avoid their mistakes. Hopefully you find the same here.

My first attempt at Livestock Guardian Animals came shortly after I purchased sheep. After unloading the animals into a paddock, I quickly realized that I had made a huge mistake and needed to provide for their safety from the multiple packs of coyotes that roamed my property. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? In a pinch, and being a dog-guy at heart, I searched “livestock guardian dog” online and decided that the Great Pyrenees was the breed for me. A quick Craigslist search revealed an adult male named “Cebu” and a female named “Sable.” The price was definitely right, and they were Pyrenees, so they’d be perfect for me.

I picked Cebu up at his suburban home, with a small shed in the back that contained a couple of fainting goats. I should have picked up on the six-foot-tall fence, combined with the wire mesh buried around the base. They may as well have had Concertina wire around the border. Surely that was for the goats, not the dog. I was certain it would sort itself out though, because he was a Great Pyrenees and would be perfect for me.

Sable was purchased by meeting her owner in a vacant ballpark nearby. It felt a lot like what I imagine a drug deal would feel like — me standing in the parking lot with a pocket full of cash, scanning any passing vehicles for one that matched the description I had received over the phone. Once we finally connected, I asked the owner, “How old is Sable?” “Not sure” was his answer. No problem — she was a Great Pyrenees and would be perfect for me.

Turns out, they weren’t perfect. But that is fine, based on what I said above, right? Well … both dogs were pets at heart, not bonded in any way to livestock and certainly not applicable to my situation. Cebu was also a runner (big surprise). The furthest he ever got picked up was on Christmas Day: 7 miles as the crow flies, and still headed in the wrong direction! Sable matched him step for step, but interestingly, after I sold Cebu to a suburban family who wanted a fluffy pet (don’t worry — they had a six-foot fence), she switched gears and took to sleeping on my porch, where she remains to this day. I am her people, and she guards me instead of the livestock; but at least she chases the coyotes howling out in the back pasture!

Lesson: Being a livestock guardian breed doesn’t make a dog a livestock guardian. Buy a LGD from a reputable breeder, whose dogs work for a living and who “starts” puppies with livestock. Also, you get what you pay for.

After Cebu left and Sable took up residence on my porch, I still needed protection for my sheep and decided to give donkeys a try. I found two on Craigslist (see a trend here?), brought them home, and moved them in with the flerd. Everything seemed to be going well, but I found myself seriously doubting their effectiveness. All they did was laze around, roll in the dust, and refuse to cross the creek. I hadn’t had any losses, but was it really due to their efforts?

Then one day my group of Large Black Hogs got out of their fence and went cavorting across the pasture. The errant hogs were happy as a lark, romping along a permanently fenced alleyway next to my sheep, when a donkey caught sight of them. She had never seen a black, floppy-eared oinker before, and that donkey came at them with ears flat back and teeth bared … scared me half to death, and I was over 100 yards away!

The only thing that saved those hogs was the woven wire fence that separated them from her, as she reached the fence and aborted her attack with an indignant snort. Had the fence not been there, I would have had a serious mess — a tragedy even — on my hands. And I’d be eating bacon into the foreseeable future. On second thought, maybe there are worse things!

BLACK AND GRAY

The donkeys’ names were Black Donkey and Gray Donkey (bet you can’t guess what color they were). Both started out just fine until their first lambing season arrived and I started to lose lambs. I would walk out to the pasture and find a perfectly healthy-looking lamb dead, sometimes with a broken leg or neck. I blamed the cows, big dumb curious animals that they are. So I took immediate action and re-segregated my flerd back into a flock and a herd. Problem solved.

Except it wasn’t. A few days later it happened again, and I was confounded. What could be causing this? The donkeys were fine with the sheep, the sheep were fine with each other, and the cows were separated. I just didn’t get it. Then I caught her in the act. As I walked up into the sheep pasture to check on a pregnant ewe, I saw Black Donkey approach the newborn lamb. She sniffed it, then nuzzled it, then reared back and stomped it with her front hoof! Only by throwing the five-gallon bucket I happened to be carrying at her did I stop the massacre. It was Black Donkey all along!

For whatever reason, in her mind there was a substantive difference between lambs and sheep. Maybe it was the noise they made; maybe it was the smell. I’ll never know. But while she was fine with the adults, she was guarding against that tiny, helpless lamb. Needless to say, I shipped her off to a cattle farm nearby, where as far as I know she is serving flawlessly. She didn’t have a problem with calves, just lambs. Weird. Want to know the craziest part of that story? That little ram lamb survived the stomping and went on to finish out for meat the next year!

Lesson: Donkeys hate what they don’t know, including things that you don’t necessarily want them to guard against. Also, they are likely more effective than you think.

After the unfortunate departure of Black Donkey, Gray Donkey was my sole guardian animal for years. And she performed admirably. The coyotes were there — Sable would keep me awake all night barking at them from my porch — but I sustained little to no predation losses. Then a switch got flipped. Last summer I started to lose lamb after lamb, sometimes multiples in a night. The predator pressure was incredible — all of a sudden and all at once. It sent me reeling, especially given the success I’d enjoyed up to then. I had no choice: I separated the flock again and brought them down to the barn to live in permanent paddocks while I licked my wounds and tried to figure out what was happening.

Then it dawned on me. As my operation grew each year, so did my paddock sizes to accommodate the flerd. Going back to guardian behaviors: donkeys guard out of belligerence, not affinity, and must be forced into contact with the predator to be effective. At my current size, a coyote attack could be happening in one part of the daily paddock and Gray Donkey could be on the complete other side, sometimes even out of sight and sound. I believe that I had literally outgrown Gray Donkey’s effectiveness. It wasn’t her fault that the attacks were happening; the coyotes were just smart enough to attack while she was far enough away not to care.

Lesson: Understanding the differences in how guardian animals protect your livestock is critical to correctly selecting species that will best suit your farm’s needs. Also, be prepared to update your selections as your operation changes.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

I am now re-attempting Livestock Guardian Dogs so that I can continue to grow my flerd to meet the needs of my growing customer base. This time around I’ve chosen the breed Maremma, as they have more of a tendency to guard from within the flock as opposed to roaming an entire property (and your neighbor’s). The dogs I have now are proven guardians, having been purchased from a working farm. The good news: I recently grazed the exact same section of pasture where I experienced the heavy losses last year, this time with even larger paddocks, and I experienced no losses!

Looking toward the future, it shouldn’t matter how big my daily paddock size becomes; the LGDs will be effective because of the fact that they actively guard those they love. My challenge now is to make sure that they love the sheep more than they love me!

With the lessons I have learned, and many more that lay in wait ahead of me, I hope that my animals will continue to thrive safe and sound in my non-confinement system. Remember, more layers of protection is better than less, and any Livestock Guardian Animal should be operating as a component in an overall security system instead of a standalone entity. For that reason alone, Gray Donkey and Sable still have a place on my property … and my porch … for now!

Paul Dorrance owns and operates a pasture-based livestock operation in Ohio, marketing 100 percent grassfed beef and lamb, as well as pastured non-GMO pork, poultry and eggs, directly to consumers. Previously an active duty Air Force officer, Paul still serves as a pilot in the Air Force Reserves.

Paul Dorrance is also a speaker at the 2019 Eco-Ag Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this December. Learn more about the conference, the agenda (including Paul’s session), and the expert speaker lineup.