Choosing a Livestock Guardian

One of the best ways to protect against predators is to keep a livestock guardian or two.

guard donkey

Donkeys are considered to be the most effective livestock guardians.

Photo by Elayne Sears

Content Tools

Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock (Storey Publishing, 2010) by Sue Weaver, is your comprehensive handbook covering all aspects of raising, caring for, and enjoying miniature livestock.  This book contains detailed information on fencing, shelters, feeding, health, transportation, breeding, and milking as well as on running a successful business with miniature livestock.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock.

Livestock Guardians

Livestock owners everywhere agree: It’s a heartbreaking, financial disaster when predators raid your flocks and herds and kill your animal friends. Predators are everywhere, from free-roaming suburban dogs to packs of

ubiquitous coyotes to mountain lions in up-country meadows, and they all pose a threat to miniature livestock. One of the best ways to protect against predators is to keep a livestock guardian or two.

USDA Statistics Tell the Tale

Consider losses among full-size sheep and goats. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) keeps track of what kills American sheep and goats and periodically publishes findings in a report titled “Sheep and Goats Death Loss.” According to the report, predators killed 280,000 sheep and goats during 2004, accounting for slightly more than 37 percent of each species that died of all causes that year! These sheep and goats were killed mainly by coyotes (more than 60 percent of the total) but also by dogs, mountain lions, bears, foxes, eagles, bobcats, and other species (among them wolves, ravens, and black vultures).

Predation is a serious problem, and one you’ll have to address in order to raise small livestock anywhere in North America — even in relatively populated areas, where dog predation poses a serious risk.

When NASS surveyed sheep and goat producers to ask how they managed predation in 2004, almost 53 percent indicated they relied at least in part on predator-proof fencing; 33 percent also penned their stock at night; and 55 percent kept livestock guardian animals with their flocks and herds.

Which Guardian Is Best?

The concept of livestock guardian animals goes back a long, long way — about 6,000 years to be precise — to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, where dogs were first trained to protect sheep and goats. Savvy livestock owners still use guardian dogs to protect their livestock, but some have added guardian donkeys and llamas to the mix.

Donkeys

Donkeys are born with an inherent hatred for anything that (to them) resembles a wolf. Therefore, some donkeys make first-rate herd guardians where coyotes and dogs are troublesome.

Donkeys require no specialized training; they simply dislike dogs and coyotes. They chase while braying, biting, and sometimes pawing or kicking at canid invaders. Donkeys have keen hearing and good eyesight, so dogs and coyotes rarely sneak past a donkey on guard.

They are hardy; long-lived (25- to 30-year life spans are the norm); and with the exception of medicated feed laced with Rumensin (which is poisonous to equines of all kinds), they eat the same sorts of things you probably already have on hand to feed ruminants such as miniature cattle, sheep, goats, and llamas. And you won’t break the bank buying a guardian-quality, standard-size or larger donkey. You can usually buy one locally in the $100 to $800 price range, depending on quality, registration status, and size.

Choosing a Livestock Guardian Donkey

Consider these points when buying a donkey to guard your miniature livestock:

• Get a donkey that’s big enough to do the job; this precludes miniature donkeys. Miniature donkeys aren’t large enough or strong enough to repel most predators, especially those that work in packs, although they’ll usually try and can be seriously injured in the process.

• Choose a sturdy, sound, healthy jenny or gelding. See the donkey section of this book for particulars.

• Consider adoption. Many donkey rescue organizations test donkeys with sheep and goats to evaluate their livestock guardian potential. Another bonus: A donkey adopted through any bona fide equine rescue is returnable if it doesn’t work out. Give a donkey a working home; many worthy donkeys need one.

There are disadvantages, however:

1. Gelded (castrated male) donkeys make the best guardians; jennets (females, also called jennies) run a close second. But some jacks (intact males) are aggressive toward humans, most will savage animals they dislike, and many have been known to kill newborn kids and lambs. Also, some jacks try to breed the larger female livestock they’re hired to protect, sometimes inflicting serious, even fatal, injuries in the process.

2. Donkeys prefer the company of other donkeys. If you place several guardian donkeys with a flock or herd, or pasture your flock next to a field containing donkeys or other equines, most donkeys will hang out with their own kind instead of watching their charges.

3. Unlike guardian dogs, donkeys haven’t been bred for generations to look after other livestock; some simply aren’t interested in bonding with animals not of their kind.

If you buy a donkey to guard your herd, ask if you can return him if he’s aggressive toward or disinterested in the livestock he’s supposed to guard.

Chances are good, however, that a carefully chosen donkey will do the job in spades. In one survey, 59 percent of Texas producers who use guardian donkeys rated them as good or fair for deterring coyote predation and another 20 percent deemed them to be excellent or good.

Llamas

In 1990, researchers at Iowa State University polled 145 sheep producers in five western states to determine the effectiveness of llamas for reducing dog and coyote predation. The producers reported losing an average of 21 percent of their ewes and lambs each year prior to adding llama guardians and only 7 percent after guardian llamas joined their flocks. Eighty percent rated their llamas effective or very effective for guarding sheep. In another study conducted in Utah, 90 percent of sheep producers rated guardian llamas effective or very effective on the job. NASS figures indicate that 14 percent of sheep and goat producers maintained guardian llamas in 2004.

Just like donkeys, llamas naturally dislike dogs and coyotes. Many make excellent guardians; others make poor guardians. Llamas prefer the company of other llamas, so you usually have to keep just one per pen or herd. Intact males are often aggressive and may try to breed small females of other species. A guardian-quality, gelded llama costs roughly $200 to $750; females usually sell for somewhat more. Llamas have certain advantages and disadvantages when compared with donkeys:

•Llamas require the same food (unlike with donkeys, it’s safe to feed them Rumensin-medicated products), vaccinations, and foot care as other small ruminants. It’s easy to treat them as just another member of the herd or flock.

• Llamas, however, are more aloof than donkeys. While most donkeys crave human interaction, the average llama doesn’t. This makes it more difficult to catch and handle them for routine maintenance chores.

• Llamas don’t do well in hot, muggy climates, where they’re prone to heat exhaustion. Depending on the length of their fleeces, llamas require full or partial shearing at least once a year.

• Llamas don’t live as long as donkeys. The average llama lives 15 years.

Choosing a Livestock Guardian Llama

Many full-size llamas make excellent guardians. Keep these thoughts in mind when choosing one for your flock or herd:

• Llamas are in their element when guarding livestock against less aggressive predators such as foxes or a dog or two; they are not effective at dealing with big guns such as mountain lions or bears or with packs of aggressive canids, all of which can easily kill or maim a guardian llama.

• Llamas guard by alarm calling (once you’ve heard this cry you’ll never forget it) and then either attacking the predator or moving their charges to a place of safety. They also can work well in pairs, in which case one may attack while the other herds the animals they guard to safety.

• Choose a sound, healthy, fairly human-friendly female or gelded male to guard your livestock. See the llama section of this book to learn how to choose the best one. If choosing two, it’s best to select two llamas of the same sex.

• Again, consider adoption. Many llama rescues also test potential guardian llamas with sheep and goats, and they, too, consider adopted llamas returnable if they don’t work out. There are many, many llamas in rescues throughout North America. Visit the Southeast Llama Rescue Web site (see Resources) for more information.

Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs)

For thousands of years, stalwart European, Middle Eastern, and Asian guard dogs of dozens of types and breeds have watched over herds of goats and flocks of sheep, protecting them from predation by wolves, bears, jackals, and human thieves. Some of these dogs eventually made their way to North America. Now, according to current NASS figures, nearly 33 percent of American sheep and goat producers use livestock guardian dogs, representing 20 or more breeds.

How They Work

All of the livestock guardian breeds are large, intelligent, strong-willed, and potentially aggressive and dominant dogs, so they aren’t to be casually handled by the faint of heart. Most are aggressive toward other dogs; they sometimes kill household pets that wander in with their charges, and some fight to the death with other guardian dogs of the same sex.

Since most predators strike at night, livestock guardian dogs are most active after dark. Barking is their primary means of warning off intruders, so expect a lot of nighttime barking from your LGDs.

Before buying a livestock guardian dog, visit LGD breeders and livestock owners who keep them. Compare philosophies and training methods. Know what you’re getting into before you bring a dog home. It’s best to buy an adult dog that is already familiar with guarding the species you raise, but if buying a puppy is your only option, here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

• To be effective, livestock guardian dogs must be bonded to and stay with the livestock they’re expected to guard. During their prime socialization period (from 4 to 14 weeks of age), it’s important to minimize human interaction with LGD puppies. However, don’t believe those who insist a guardian puppy should never be cuddled or played with. LGD puppies should look forward to interacting with humans, but it’s important to play with the puppy on her own turf rather than taking her to the house or for rides in the truck; she needs to understand that watching her livestock pals is her primary job.

• Livestock guardian puppies needn’t be trained to watch their charges; the desire to guard has been bred into these dogs for thousands of years. Most begin showing guardian dog behaviors by five or six months of age (scent marking, purposeful barking, and deliberate patrolling), although few become reliable protectors until they achieve mental and physical maturity, usually at about two years of age.

• As they pass through adolescence, most LGD puppies exhibit inappropriate behavior toward their charges, usually in the form of play-chasing. Expect it and work through this phase with reprimands; there’s an effective working livestock guardian waiting on the other side.

• The occasional pup comes along who has no interest in guarding. All breed organizations maintain rescue programs for their dogs, so if you get one of these apathetic types, consider placing your nonworking dog with a rescue group.

Choosing a Livestock Guardian Dog

It pays to be picky when choosing a livestock guardian dog since your animals’ well-being is involved.

• Crosses between two livestock guardian breeds are often the best of both worlds, but avoid crossbreds having one livestock guardian breed parent and another parent of a non-LGD breed. Some become admirable guards, while others take after the non guardian parent and may hurt rather than guard their charges.

• Some livestock guardian breeds, especially breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, are sometimes bred for show-ring conformation and presence (“look at me” alertness) instead of working ability. Always choose a dog or puppy from working stock rather than show-dog bloodlines.

• Whenever possible, choose an adult dog that has already proved itself as a livestock guardian bonded to the species you raise. Watch the classifieds. When people go out of the sheep, goat, or alpaca business, they often advertise guardian dogs in local papers. Species-specific e-mail lists are excellent hunting grounds, too.

• Give preference to a puppy raised among livestock by a working dam. Bring him home when he’s seven or eight weeks old and place him with a few friendly, nonaggressive individuals of your herd. Give him a safe place to retreat to where his future charges can’t follow him, place his bed and food and water dishes in that spot, and allow him to bond with the species he’ll be guarding.

• If you have an adult livestock guardian dog, buy a puppy while that adult is still in its prime. The puppy will learn its job by following the adult’s example.


Excerpted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock © Sue Weaver. Illustrations by © Elayne Sears. Used with permission of Storey Publishing. You can buy this book from our store: Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock