Last month, I had a chance to attend the Society for Range Management annual convention in Denver, Colorado. Among the symposia I attended was one entitled "Transforming ranching through precision livestock management on extensive rangelands" - fancy title, right?! But despite the lengthy (and overly academic) title, I found the talks to be outstanding! And the possibility for using technology to improve livestock management presents an exciting opportunity!
The first speaker was Dr. Mark Trotter from CQ University in Queensland, Australia. He suggested that cooperative extension can and should play an important role in the development and use of new technology. First and foremost, this technology should have economic value for producers - either by increasing revenue or reducing costs. Dr. Trotter also suggested that extension should guide the development of technology and help test the hardware in real-world settings. Extension should help test the animal behavior algorithms that make the technology relevant in production settings. Finally, extension can help prepare the industry for the widespread adoption of these new technologies.
The most exciting technological developments, at least to me, are those that can help make labor more efficient. Dr. Trotter and Dr. Derek Bailey (from New Mexico State University) talked about new applications for global positioning system (GPS) technology and ear tag mounted accelerometers. Researchers are finding that these systems can predict when cattle or sheep will give birth and can even alert a producer about a calving or lambing problem. Other researchers are using these systems to detect diseases and predation impacts. Trotter and Bailey also talked about the potential for using this kind of technology to place water troughs in areas that will facilitate more efficient forage use, as well as helping managers predict when livestock need to move to fresh pasture.
The final speaker was Dr. Tony Waterhouse, professor emeritus from Scotland Rural College. He spoke about the need for durable technology: "Sheep break things a bit; cows break things a lot," he said. He has experimented with technology that records a ewe's proximity to specific lambs as a way to match a ewe with her offspring (often a difficult task in extensive range-based sheep production systems).
At least for me, technology will never replace the need for people to manage livestock. These are complex biological, economic, and social systems - the rancher's "eye" will always be critical. However, I do think that there may be ways - in the not too distant future - where this technology can help our eyes see patterns and behaviors we couldn't see previously. Stay tuned! I hope to begin testing some of this technology in the coming years!
In the meantime, here are some links to several of the technology firms mentioned in the symposium:
Given the nature of rangeland livestock production in California, some conflict with wildlife is probably inevitable. In our part of the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley, grazing livestock and wildlife (including a number of predators) often occupy the same landscapes. Private ranch lands and public grazing lands alike provide important habitat for a wide variety of game and nongame species.
In recognition of the potential for conflicts between human activities and wildlife, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has launched a new website focused on reducing these conflicts. Managed by the Wildlife Investigations Lab, this new resource includes information on a dealing with wildlife problems in urban, suburban, and rural settings.
Here's a link: CDFW Human-Wildlife Conflicts Program
Mark your calendar! We have a number of outstanding workshops already booked for 2020! More details will follow in the coming weeks!
PRESCRIBED FIRE ON PRIVATE LANDS (March 26 - Auburn, CA): This one-day workshop will feature information on fire terms and behavior, permitting and legal considerations, and CalFire's Vegetation Management Program. For more information, go to https://ucanr.edu/sites/forestry/files/318840.pdf.
DROUGHT PLANNING FOR RANCHERS (March 31 - Yuba City, CA; April 1 - Grass Valley, CA): Learn about the strategies and drought adaptation tools that helped California ranchers survive the historic 2012-2015 drought. We'll present information about tools for improving your ability to adapt to an increasingly variable climate.
CALIFORNIA TARGETED GRAZING ACADEMY (September 18-19 - Auburn, CA): This 2-day academy will combine hands-on learning about targeting specific vegetation management goals using sheep and goats with an overview of the business basics of contract targeted grazing.
For more details, including registration information, go to the Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba Livestock and Natural Resources Homepage at https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/
Several years ago, I started a social media project I called Sheep 365. Every day for a full year, I posted a photo of something we were doing in our sheep operation. At first, I thought it would simply be a fun way to share my shepherding year with friends and family. I soon realized, however, that it could be a reasonably useful educational tool. I found that other small-scale producers were following along and asking questions. More importantly, perhaps, I found that I was able to share the ups and downs of livestock production with a public audience. I could talk about things like losing lambs to pneumonia or the importance of shearing sheep.
Last week, I attended the American Sheep Industry Association annual convention in Scottsdale, Arizona. During the Resource Management Council meeting, we had a lengthy conversation about public misperceptions about livestock guardian dogs. Oftentimes, it seems, the public doesn't understand the concept of a working dog - dogs are pets, and pets shouldn't sleep outside (or even be outside at all in inclement weather). These misperceptions could jeopardize our use of LGDs.
At the same time, I often get questions from producers who haven't used livestock guardian dogs. Where do I find a good dog? Should I buy an adult dog or a puppy? How do I make sure my dog will stay with my livestock? Will my liability insurance go up? How many dogs do I need?
Beginning on February 1, 2020, I am embarking on new social media project - 52 Weeks of Livestock Guardian Dogs. At least once a week for the coming year, I'll post something about livestock guardian dogs on my social media accounts (on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/, on my Instagram feed - @flyingmule, and on my Twitter feed - Sheepherder Scientist - @flyingmulefarm). Some of these posts will feature my own dogs; others will discuss the ways in which LGDs are used in other operations. There is also a significant and growing body of research about these dogs, which I hope to share during the course this project. Once a month, I'll also devote a blog post to the topic.
Speaking of research, empirical research regarding the effectiveness of LGDs is difficult to conduct. There are so many variables - the breed, age, sex, and reproductive status of the dogs; the environment they're working in; the predators in that environment and their dietary preferences; the time of year and stage of production - in other words, the answer to most research questions about LGDs seems to be, "It depends." For that reason, I also hope to start documenting case studies about LGDs in a variety of settings. These may not provide empirical data, but I hope they capture the range of uses and successes/failures inherent in using any livestock protection tool. I hope they'll provide producers with useful information!
In the meantime, I hope you'll share your questions - and your observations - about these dogs! Post your comments to this blog below, or post questions and comments on any of my social media accounts!
When we first started using livestock guardian dogs nearly 15 years ago, I often joked that we our sheep operation was "predator-friendly" because our dogs were not. In other words, the protective behavior of our dogs allowed us to avoid using lethal control on coyotes, mountain lions, and other predators in our environment. And in those 15 years, knock on wood, we've never had to kill a predator. This isn't to say we wouldn't use lethal control if we came upon a predator killing our sheep, but our dogs (for the most part) seem to be doing their jobs.
California now has a predator (the gray wolf) that is protected under both the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Under both laws, it is illegal to "harm or harass" a wolf - and lethal control (at least in California) is not an option (even if a wolf is killing livestock). Consequently, the potential interaction between LGDs and wolves takes on new implications - could a rancher whose dog injured (or even killed) a gray wolf be held liable for "taking" an endangered species? Would the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which recommends LGDs as a non-lethal livestock protection tool in wolf country, actually prosecute such a case?
More than two-thirds of these dogs had no reported interactions with wildlife. Of the 71 dogs that did interact with wildlife, 48% interacted with herbivores, while 73% interacted with predators. Just 9% had lethal interactions with herbivores (where the herbivore was killed); 10% had lethal interactions with predators. All of the documented interactions between LGDs and predators (a total of 44 instances) were defensive in nature (in other words, the predator approached the herd and the dog responded). Ultimately, the authors conclude, "Overall, the conservation benefit of LGDs does not appear to be outweighed by ethical implications of their use; LGDs were shown to be highly targeted and discriminatory towards predators attempting to predate on livestock." In other words, the LGDs in this study were effective at deterring predation while minimizing impacts on non-threatening wildlife.
I found this research especially interesting in light of my own observations of our LGDs and the LGDs used by other California operations. I've never witnessed a direct interaction between our dogs and a predator (which is why we're using GPS collars and trail cameras to try to document these encounters). In my 15 years of using these dogs, I've encountered 2 dead raccoons and 2-3 dead jackrabbits in our sheep paddocks, which I assume were killed by our dogs. I have also observed two of our dogs going after an otter (which is a much more vicious predator than I'd realized). I know that our dogs will respond when they hear coyotes howling in the distance, but I've never seen a direct confrontation.
Working with several range sheep operations this summer, I suspect that wildlife encounters may be more common in these unfenced, herded systems. The herders I've worked with report that the dogs are very active at night (as some of my trail cameras and the GPS data suggest).
I'm interested in learning from other producers - how do your LGDs respond to non-threatening wildlife versus predators? What kinds of things do you do to correct inappropriate behaviors? I hope you'll share your insights in the comments to this blog!