Earlier this week, a number of ranchers from Placer County met with law enforcement, fire and animal control officials to discuss the emergency preparation and response issues unique to commercial-scale ranching operations. As we talked, I realized that there are several factors that make planning for and responding to wildfire (and other emergencies, like flooding) challenging for these kinds of ranching businesses:
- Many ranches have livestock in multiple locations.
- Many leased pastures are simply pastures; there is no landlord or other resident on site.
- Because of this, the physical address of the pasture may not be readily apparent.
- Often, the number of livestock at a particular site may be more than can be easily evacuated in a single load in a stock trailer.
- Access during a fire may be difficult due to law enforcement road blocks. Since many of us lease pastures, gaining access (as opposed to staying at our home places in the event of an evacuation) can be problematic.
There are several things we can do to help address these issues. First, we should write down the locations where our livestock are grazing at least on a seasonal basis. What's the address? How many animals are at each location, and what classes of animals are there? What are the evacuation routes you'd be likely to use to get animals out of harms way? If you couldn't evacuate the animals, are there safe zones on or nearby the location where animals could be moved? Is there an on-site landlord or resident, or perhaps a neighbor, that you could call in an emergency situation? Finally, are there 2 or 3 nearby ranchers who could help you? Here's a sample of my one-page plan:
Access to leased pastures during a large-scale fire or other emergency may be more problematic. On Monday, we learned from CalFire that there is a liaison officer within the agency's incident command structure who can help facilitate access to livestock during a multi-day fire. Short-term access may be more difficult - we're working with our local emergency responders to find ways to address this while also protecting public and fire fighter safety.
What steps do you take to prepare for the possibility of wildfire? I hope you'll share your ideas and questions in the comment section below!
And finally, I'm working on organizing similar meetings with first responders in Nevada, Yuba and Sutter Counties. If you operate a commercial ranch, or lease land to a rancher in one of these counties, and would like to get involved, please contact me at email@example.com.
In "A Livestock Guardian Dog by Any Other Name: Similar Response to Wolves Across Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds," authors Dan Kinka of Utah State University and Julie Young of the Wildlife Services National Wildlife Research Center compare several new (to the United States) breeds of LGDs with the typical American "whitedog" (Great Pyrenees, Akbash, Anatolian, Maremma, and crosses of these breeds). Some producers believe that because the American whitedog breeds were initially selected to protect small ruminants from coyotes, they may not be well suited to deterring larger predators (especially gray wolves and grizzly bears). As part of the study, Kinka and Young imported kangals from Turkey, karakachans from Bulgaria, and cao de gado transmontanos from Portugal. These breeds were selected because they were typically used in their home countries to protect livestock from wolves and European brown bears - and they were considered to be human-friendly. The imported dogs were placed with sheep ranchers in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming. The whitedogs used by these operations were considered to be a single control breed for the purposes of the study.
The study included direct observation of behavior during normal ranch operations, as well a decoy test designed to simulate mule deer and wolf encounters. Kinka and Young recorded five behavior components (activity, posture, vocalization, proximity to livestock, and out-of-view to the observer). Within these components a number of specific behaviors were documented (like scanning, investigation, vigilance, chasing, etc.).
While the authors noted some subtle differences in behavior and responses to simulated wildlife encounters between breeds, they noted "that kangals, karakachans, transmontanos and whitedogs spent equivalent proportions of time in most behaviors during both baseline sampling and simulated wolf encounters." They also found that LGD age and time of day influenced LGD behavior and that sex had no effect on any behavior - observations I've made with my own LGDs. For example, our LGDs always seem to be much more active and vigilant at dusk than during the middle of the day. Ultimately, the authors suggest, "the homogeneity of behavioral data for multiple LGD breeds suggests that regardless of breed, LGDs operate in much the same way. As such, breed may be a less important predictor of a 'good dog' than often suggested."
So what makes a good dog? Obviously, this definition varies from one operation to the next based on context. In our operation, a good dog needs to stay with our sheep, inside our electro-net fencing. A good dog shouldn't chew on or chase (or kill!) the livestock it is protecting. A good dog should be reasonably friendly with people but prefer the company of sheep. And good dog should deter coyotes, mountain lions, black bears and other minor predators in our environment.
If wolves continue to move south, I suspect my definition of a good dog might evolve. I know ranchers in the northern Rocky Mountains who are using larger dogs (including some of the breeds evaluated in this study). A large-scale targeted grazing contractor who has grazed sheep and goats in wolf territory in Montana and Idaho swears by intact male whitedogs. Last week, I visited a sheep permittee as they turned out onto a Tahoe National Forest grazing allotment approximately 12 miles northeast of where the California Department of Fish and Wildlife detected a GPS-collared wolf in early June. The ranch manager indicated he'd be adding more dogs to each of his two bands of sheep. For those of us in California, wolves are a wild card - our dogs have never had to contend with a large, pack-hunting predator.
While formal research on the behavioral attributes of successful LGDs is critical, we also need to share our on-the-ground experiences! What do you look for in an LGD in your operation? Do you use different dogs for different situations? I suspect each of us will have a slightly different answer to these questions! I hope you'll join in this conversation!
Kinka, D., Young, J.K., A Livestock Guardian Dog by Any Other Name: Similar Response to Wolves Across Livestock Guardian Dog Breeds, (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rama.2018.03.004
Steve Cote, author of Stockmanship, is offering a four-day, hands-on stockmanship school at Cottonwood Guest Ranch outside of Wells, Nevada. See the flyer below for all the details!
September 14-15, 2018
UCCE - Auburn
11477 E Avenue, Auburn, California 95603
This two-day, hands-on grazing school will provide participants with practical, field-based experience in applying the principles of managed grazing on rangeland, brushland and irrigated pasture. Working in teams, participants will learn to estimate carrying capacity and graze periods, develop grazing plans and monitoring systems, and create drought and predator protection plans.
Day 1 (Friday, September 14 - 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.)
- Principles of Managed Grazing
- Sheep Husbandry Basics (electric fence, carrying capacity, stockmanship, sheep husbandry, etc.)
- Setting up a 24-hour Graze (field activity)
- Goat Husbandry Basics)
- Matching Production Calendars to Forage Calendars
- Controlling Internal Parasites
- Dinner and Panel Discussion
Day 2 (Saturday, September 15 - 8 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.)
- Sheep and Goat Nutrition
- Pasture and Range Ecology (field activity)
- Grazing Planning and Monitoring
- Pasture Walk and Assessment
- Targeted Grazing
- Livestock Protection Tools
Cost: $200 (includes breakfast, lunch and dinner on Day 1; breakfast and lunch on Day 2). Also includes all course materials. No refunds - your payment guarantees your space.
Hotels are available in Auburn.
For more information:
In our operation, there are several ways we can accomplish this work. We can move our portable corral system to the pasture where the sheep are grazing; we can move the sheep back to our corrals; or we can simply use dogs to bunch the sheep in the pasture and catch each animal individually. Being an agricultural economist by training (and somewhat of a economics geek), my first inclination is to compare the costs of each of these alternatives!
Option 1: Move the Corrals: We have a set of homemade portable corrals that incorporate Bud Williams' alley design (a "Bud Box" system). Two of us can dismantle, load and re-assemble this set up in about 45 minutes. This system allows us to put sheep into a race or alley to check eyes and treat infected individuals with a drench dewormer. The work of treating the 39 sheep in this bunch takes about 30 minutes. If we value our own labor at $15/hour, I estimate that this option would cost us $108 in labor (if we include the time it takes to move the corrals back to our headquarters).
Option 2: Move the Sheep to the Corrals: The lambs are currently grazing about 0.34 miles from our corrals. To walk the sheep from this pasture to our corrals, we would need to go through 5 gates and cross over land owned by four different people. The move is not terribly complicated (and our border collies love the work!), but it does take about 20 minutes to walk the sheep to the corrals to be treated - and another 20 minutes to walk them back to the pasture. Treatment time is the same as in option 1 - the total labor cost for option 2 is about $35.
Option 3: Treat the Sheep in the Pasture: My cowboy friends would call this a "rodear," I suppose - this option simply involves holding the sheep in a bunch in the pasture and catching each animal individually. For a group of sheep this size, two good dogs are sufficient. The dogs hold the sheep in a tight group. One of us catches each animal and examines the eye mucous membranes; the other person administers the drench (as needed) and marks the sheep. Any sheep showing anemia is treated with a drench; any sheep without symptoms is not treated. So that we can keep track of which sheep we've examined, we put a blue mark on the rump of those who do not need dewormer and a red mark on the rump of those we treat. Examining 39 lambs and treating those with symptoms takes about 30 minutes - our total labor cost for this option is $15. I suspect that this system is less stressful on the sheep, as well!
Obviously, this simplistic analysis doesn't capture the capital costs of acquiring and training the dogs (or of building the corrals, for that matter). Nor does it account for the cost of feeding and caring for the dogs. It also fails to account for the investment in building our own skills - I certainly could not have treated 39 lambs in 30 minutes when I started raising sheep commercially nearly 15 years ago. That said, our ability to handle livestock and use dogs effectively allowed us to treat 39 lambs before work this morning!
If you're interested in building your own stockmanship and sheep husbandry skills, there are two outstanding learning opportunities next several months: