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Donkeys as Livestock Guardians
On guard! Some of you probably picked up this book because you’re thinking about getting a livestock guardian for your sheep, goats, alpacas, Miniature horses or donkeys, or some other type of small livestock. You’re wondering if a guardian donkey would fill your needs — and the answer is a qualified “maybe.”
If you keep small livestock, predation is an issue. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 1999 alone some 273,000 lambs and sheep were killed by predators to a monetary tune of $16,502,000. At least 165,800 of these unfortunates were dispatched by coyotes, a species now found in burgeoning numbers throughout the 48 continental United States and in every Canadian province. Another 41,300 were killed by dogs. Combined, coyotes and dogs account for more than 75 percent of the sheep predation in America. Donkeys are effective against both species, but not all donkeys will protect another species. Selecting the right donkey is important.
Who Uses Guard Donkeys?
In 1989, Murray T. Walton and C. Andy Field of the Texas Department of Agriculture presented a paper, “The Use of Donkeys to Guard Sheep and Goats in Texas,” at the Fourth Eastern Wildlife Damage Control Conference; after conducting two surveys and talking to numerous farmers and ranchers who use donkeys to guard small livestock, these were their conclusions:
Based on the results of the first survey an estimated 2,400 Texas sheep and goat producers tried guard donkeys and 1,800 were currently using them. Most respondents used guard jennies, some used geldings, and a few used a jenny with her foal.
Twenty-two percent of 275 sheep and goat producers who responded to the second survey reported guard donkey use, and 16 percent indicated that donkeys were being used at the time of the survey (for a total of 133 donkeys). Forty percent reported that their donkeys did a good or better job (ratings were excellent, good, fair, poor, failure, and unknown) of protecting livestock from coyote and dog predation. One responder indicated that his donkey killed more goats than predators; another said that his donkey was observed successfully fending off three coyotes trying to attack a group of sheep bunched up behind the donkey at a fence corner.
According to the 1999 Colorado State University bulletin, “Livestock Guard Dogs, Llamas and Donkeys,” 3 percent of producers in Colorado used donkeys to protect sheep. During the same year, according to National Agricultural Statistics Service statistics, about 9 percent of sheep producers throughout the United States used donkeys to protect their animals from predators, primarily coyotes.
Since 1995, the Swiss Wolf Project has encouraged farmers to use guard donkeys to protect their flocks from wolf predation in the western Alps. The experiment is ongoing, but early results appear promising.
On a similar note, stock producers Down Under are successfully using guard donkeys to stem predation by wild dogs, dingoes, and foxes, the major predators of livestock in Australia.
The 1995 Ontario Predator Study, Study 6: Donkeys As Mobile Flock Protectors, by Fytche Enterprises, reported that about 70 percent of the donkeys being used were rated excellent or good in terms of providing flock protection. However, the donkeys’ effectiveness ranged from total elimination of predation, to having absolutely no impact on predation while simultaneously causing other problems within the flock. In other words, success varies according to each situation.
Training a Guard Donkey
This stellar information on training guard donkeys is gleaned from the Alberta (Canada) Ministry of Agriculture and Food publication, “Protecting Livestock with Guard Donkeys” (see Resources):
- Guard donkeys may need several weeks to adjust to livestock, so introduce them to stock well before predation is likely to occur.
- Keep young donkeys with goats, sheep, or cattle after the donkey is weaned. Do not allow guard donkeys to run with other donkeys or horses. In this way the young donkey will think it is part of the flock or herd. Ideally, the donkey should be born in the flock or herd, and its dam should be taken away at weaning to let the young animal grow up with the stock.
- Place a new donkey on the other side of a common fence line with livestock. This gives the donkey and the livestock an opportunity to get to know one another safely.
- 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 both will have accepted each other. Allow the donkey to run loose in the pen or pasture and soon the stock will seek the donkey out in times of danger.
- Feed the donkey with the stock so it feels like a member of the flock or herd. If stock is fed from troughs, feed the donkey first from a separate feeder or bowl so the livestock can eat unhindered. Always feed the guard donkey something every time you feed the stock.
- Keep all dogs away from donkeys and do not test the donkey by teasing it with a dog. Do not allow farm dogs to become friendly with the donkey. Avoid or limit the use of stock dogs around donkeys.
- If a donkey is aggressive toward or fears stock (or vice versa), remove it immediately.
Donkey, Dog, or Llama?
- However, before choosing a donkey guardian, make certain that you want one; an LGD (livestock guardian dog) or llama might better suit your needs.
- If you live where predation by mountain lions or bears is a problem, forget about donkeys and llamas; neither species can adequately protect itself, much less its charges, against big, aggressive predators like these.
- If noise is an issue, don’t get an LGD. Livestock guardian dogs bark all night; this is how they warn predators away. Because they’re big dogs with deep, resounding voices, their barking isn’t particularly annoying, although nearby neighbors might disagree. If you choose an LGD, play a radio while your dog is on duty or buy a box fan with a loud, soothing hum; turn it on high speed when you go to bed; and snooze away.
- If you feed your goats or sheep feeds containing anticoccidial agents like monensin (Rumensin) or lasalocid (Bovatec), please think twice about buying a guard donkey. According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs, a lethal dose of monensin for horses is 1–2 mg/kg of body weight, and of lasalocid, 21.5 mg/kg of body weight. That’s not a lot of monensin, and though no tests have included donkeys, they’re often more sensitive to chemicals than are horses. A single slipup could be fatal. Either choose a different guardian or do as we do and feed nothing but unmedicated feed.
- Each species has its own pros and cons. Before choosing, ask people who keep each type of livestock guardian for their advice. Or write for the free booklet “Using Guard Animals to Protect Livestock” (see Resources).
Cover Courtesy of Storey Publishing
Excerpted from The Donkey Companion © Sue Weaver, illustrations by © Elayne Sears, used with permission from Storey Publishing.