Protecting livestock is easy when you have guard donkeys in place.
Buena Vista, North Carolina — Have you ever seen a cow smile? If you do see a herd of cattle with big goofy grins, it's probably not because of the growing number of vegetarians. The cows might be happy because of a chief security officer whose obnoxious braying can raise the roof off a barn — guard donkeys are at work.
Take, for instance, Jack, the 8-month-old guard donkey who protects the herd on a 200-acre farm near Buena Vista. Sure, he looks like a sweet pet, but here's the kicker — he will punt over the moon any animal that is harassing one of the cows.
Guard donkeys have a reputation that stretches back to Biblical days. But many modern farmers only recently have become aware of the donkey's usefulness in protecting their herds and flocks from predators. For Kim McPherson, coordinator of The Children’s Home farm, selecting this particular guard animal wasn't a matter of choice. "Jack was donated by another farmer," she says, "and he guards the herd like any head of the household."
Guard donkeys keep a vigilant eye, whether standing watch between the shady places among trees or showing themselves full-bodied, ready for a challenge. "And with harsh winters and a constant increasing herd size, the need for better protection becomes evident," says McPherson. "That's when the herd needs donkey patrol."
Donkeys don't like intruders in their space and are capable of severely discouraging any predators.
"Jack loves attention and wants to be part of a family," says McPherson. "While serving as farmland security, he tolerates friendly and familiar humans."
While donkeys are gentle, placid animals, they possess a natural aggression toward canines. According to McPherson, losses due to predators would be much higher without Jack. To protect the herd, Jack uses his hooves. His hard, small hooves are amazingly accurate in reaching their target, with the wallop of a projectile missile.
He also has an incredibly strong neck, jaw and teeth, capable of lifting, crunching and flinging objects that weigh between 50 and 100 pounds. "Jack would attack a bear if it meant harm to the herd," says McPherson. "The size of a predator makes no difference to him."
Using a clever technique, Jack plays a cat-and-mouse game with predators. He first moves away from an invader, presenting his rear in a way that leads the predator to believe he is retreating and encouraging attack from behind. "What he is really doing," says McPherson, "is positioning himself to deliver those hooves in the most effective way." Donkeys use their front feet as well, stomping an adversary and breaking its bones, but they seem to prefer the backhanded rear-foot method.
Donkeys won’t bray unless there's a reason, although sometimes the only reason is that they just want a hug. "Jack particularly enjoys his donkey hugs," McPherson says. "And if I refuse, he keeps after me because that’s his nature."
Jack feeds on grass and hay with the herd during the day and beds down with them at night, when most coyotes, fox and feral dogs are positioned to attack the herd. McPherson thinks that Jack does not intentionally patrol the pasture looking for intruders. He simply investigates and pursues predators if he detects them with his exceptional hearing and keen sense of smell. For this reason, it is not recommended to pet a dog before visiting a guard donkey.
Some routine care is necessary to keep donkeys healthy. Most important is hoof trimming. If donkeys' tiny feet are neglected, they won't be able to chase predators. A farrier must examine their feet every 6 to 10 weeks. Because donkeys are prone to impaction from dehydration, they require plenty of fresh water. For more on the care of donkeys, see "Cheers for the Long-Ears" article in this issue for information.
Some donkey breeders raise foals around herds. The Bureau of Land Management has wild donkeys available for adoption. (See "Cheers for the Long-Ears" for information.) Some folks just buy what they can at the stockyards and then sell those that don’t work out.
Donkeys do have definite personalities, and some turn out to be unsuitable for guard work. When purchasing a donkey keep in mind that it must be reasonably friendly towards people and easy to handle. To guard cattle, goats or sheep, a donkey should stand about 4 to 4½ feet tall. They are most successful in protecting no more than 200 animals in small and level pastures, where they can see all or most of the area from one location. Donkeys will be of limited use on rolling terrain or rangeland covered with heavy bush, although many of the disadvantages of having stock in these locations have nothing to do with a donkey’s abilities to guard the herd.
The key to training a guard donkey is to keep the young donkey with goats, sheep or cattle after it is weaned. If the young donkey is not permitted to run with other donkeys or horses, it will think it is part of the flock or herd.
Ideally guard donkeys should be born in the flock or herd, particularly if there is familiarity between the mother and the herd. If there is a problem with this situation (and it will be evident immediately), allow the mother to birth outside the fence. Then the foal can be placed within the herd at intervals to allow for socialization until the foal can function on its own.
A week to 10 days following this socialization period, lead the donkey around the cattle or sheep where they can smell and touch each other. Then tether the donkey inside the pen with the stock and feed and groom it there for about a week. By this time everyone will have accepted one another.
Keep all dogs away from donkeys and do not let dogs tease or try to play with the donkey.
Use only one donkey at a time with livestock. This is important in larger pastures because donkeys might pal up and wander away from the stock. There is one exception to the single donkey rule; a jenny with an unweaned foal tends to be much more protective than other donkeys.
Remove the donkey during lambing or calving, as a precaution against accidents, injury or disruption.
A guard donkey is a friend and protector. Always speak in a gentle tone and approach the donkey from the front so he or she can see you. Whether water is under their feet or falling from the heavens, donkeys will do their best to avoid getting wet. This is because their desert coat absorbs rather than repels moisture. Once a donkey's coat becomes damp, it can develop a fungus, so keep the donkey clean, dry and protected. Access to at least a three-walled shelter with dry flooring, adequate lighting and shelter from the weather will assist your donkey in keeping up its guard.