Predation is the leading cause of death in American sheep flocks, but there are a number of actions producers can take to prevent this loss.
A good fence can help and is an essential first step. Powerful electrified wires may deter dogs and coyotes. However, savvy predators may figure out how to avoid shocks, and once they do, the fence will not be sufficient protection. Also, a fence cannot protect from avian predators, such as eagles or turkey vultures.
Penning livestock near the house at night can help if predators are wary of humans. This leaves animals more prone to “little predators,” however, as internal parasites become a serious problem where manure builds up.
This is where livestock guardian dogs, donkeys, or llamas can show their value. By using livestock guardian animals, you can give your animals 24-hour-a-day bodyguards, and allow the animals to stay out grazing and spreading manure on the land. Effective guardians prevent injuries and deaths, and give the farmer peace of mind. They are well worth the cost.
On the other hand, not all livestock guardian animals are effective, and when they are not, they can cause losses and strain neighbor relations. So, how can you increase the odds of getting a good protector and not another problem?
- Choose the right guardian animal for the terrain, predator pressure, size of pasture, proximity to neighbors, budget, availability of animals, and your personal preference.
- Have the animal neutered or spayed to cut down on behavior issues.
- Only use animals that have been bonded when young to the species they will be protecting.
- Test a prospective guard donkey or guard llama by putting a dog in the pen with them. If they don’t seem to notice, they are likely not a good prospect. You want a guardian that is antagonistic toward strange canines.
- Do not expect to get a good dog (or donkey or llama) for free; the animals that you want have been raised on a farm with sheep (or goats). An animal that is not bonded to the stock may avoid associating with the stock and may injure or kill the stock rather than protecting them.
- Plan to spend what it takes to keep healthy guardian animals. Vaccinations for dogs, hoof care for donkeys and llamas, shearing for llamas (and perhaps for Great Pyrenees dogs), dental care for donkeys and perhaps llamas, and food for dogs should all be figured into the budget.
- Use the right number of animals. Using more than required is expensive and counter-productive.
- It is okay to combine different species of guardians. Llamas or donkeys can work well with guardian dogs, and this can be a kind of hedging.
Dogs must be taught their territory and taught to stay with the flock or herd. This should be done when they first arrive at your farm.
- Supervise any guardians during lambing or kidding, especially when they are young. You must correct any bad behaviors and may have to separate the guardians until they gain maturity.
- Count your animals so you will know immediately if you are missing any.
- Feed your dogs properly so that they are not tempted to snack on baby animals. Do not allow them to feed on dead lambs or kids; the small savings in dog food is not worth you teaching them bad habits.
- If you are getting a livestock guardian dog, be sure to choose a dog that is “all guardian”—both parents are the type of dog with the proper instincts.
- Choose a guardian animal that you enjoy. If you have never liked horses, then a donkey may not be the best choice for you.
- Dogs that are guardians must be kept with the animals. It is okay to pet them; you need to be able to catch them, take them on a leash, get them yearly vaccinations, and feel safe with them.
- Talk to your neighbors about the guardian dogs. Be sure your dogs are identified so that if they do roam, someone can let you know.
Once these basics are in place, livestock guardians can be fairly trouble-free and real assets to the farm. They make it possible to raise small ruminants in a wildlife-friendly way, and to protect the livestock (and profits) from harm.
Learn more about livestock guardians from the following sources:
For more information and free, online publications about sheep and goats and other agricultural topics, visit www.attra.ncat.org. Specialists can be reached by calling 800-346-9140.