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!
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
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.
While ranchers are legitimately concerned with the potential impacts from gray wolves, other more common predators (like mountain lions, coyotes and black bears) can be more problematic in our region. And predators can have indirect impacts (like decreased weight gain, poor reproductive performance and added labor) in addition to causing direct losses.
In collaboration with my colleague Tracy Schohr (the livestock and natural resources advisor for Butte, Plumas and Sierra Counties), I have developed the following fact sheet to help ranchers understand and document these impacts:
In the meantime, please contact our offices - or your local agricultural commissioner or wildlife services specialist - if you have specific questions!
Wildfire preparations are more complicated for commercial livestock operations. Like our neighbors, we need to create a fire safe space around our homes; we also need to think about protecting ranch infrastructure and livestock. If you haven't prepared a ranch fire safety plan, or even if you have one in place, the beginning of fire season is a reminder that we all need to be prepared! Here are a few ideas for putting together a plan for your operation.
Assessing the Threat
What is at risk in your operation? Do you have livestock in multiple locations? What is access like to your home place as well as to rented properties? As I think about our sheep operation, the following issues come to mind:
- We need to protect our home, barns and other infrastructure at our home place.
- We have livestock in several locations. Where we have irrigated pasture, we aren't quite as worried about fire. Where we're grazing on dry grass, we are more concerned. While fire is an immediate threat to the health and well-being of our animals, it can also reduce the amount of fall forage we'll have.
- Access can be a challenge during a fire. Single-lane roads, law enforcement road blocks and other obstacles may make it difficult to get our livestock during a fire.
- Smoke can create health problems for people and livestock alike. About ten years ago, during a particular smoky stretch of the summer, we had an increase in respiratory disease in our sheep.
Because many of us have operations that are spread over multiple locations, getting timely and accurate information about where fires are can be challenging as well. I find that www.yubanet.com usually has the most up-to-date information on fire location and size - be sure to check the "Happening Now" tab. CalFire also has a phone app that purports to send alerts when fires start near your location, although I've found that the app doesn't provide the real-time information I need about small local fires. Many of us have informal phone trees with the other ranchers in our area - this can be the best way to get in-the-moment information! Be sure you know the neighbors where your livestock are grazing!
Developing and Implementing a Plan
A ranch wildfire plan should have several main components:
- Protecting Buildings, Infrastructure and Information: All of us should make our home places fire safe! Remove flammable vegetation within 100 feet of our homes and other buildings. Don't forget other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds and barns. Also be sure you have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. You should also check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting Forage: Many of us stock our operations conservatively to ensure that we have fall forage for our livestock. You might consider creating fuel breaks to protect this forage. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources. Another alternative would be to use targeted grazing adjacent to roads or pasture boundaries - this can reduce the fuel load and slow a fire down. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting Livestock: We try to think ahead of how we might move animals out of harm's way. Given enough warning, we would either haul livestock away from a fire or herd them to a safe location. Many of us, however, have too many animals to evacuate on short notice. Leaving animals in pasture (or "sheltering in place") might be the best option in many cases. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the animals have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure animals as the fire moves through your property.
- Water Supply: Water is critical for protecting our properties and for keeping livestock healthy. Do you have adequate water supplies for wetting down your buildings and facilities, or for directly fighting fire? If you have to pump water, do you have a backup system in case you lose power? Can you provide stock water if the power goes out? You may wish to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage.
- Escape Routes: Ideally, we should all have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. We try to think about at least two alternatives for moving our livestock to safety in the event of a fire - and this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near our pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, we can't all be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire. Consider working with friends, neighbors or colleagues to have a backup plan to evacuate or otherwise protect your livestock. Consider meeting with your neighbors to go over key livestock facilities, evacuation plans and access routes. Be sure to check in with these backup resources in the event of fire.
- Communication Plans: Do you have phone numbers for the other ranchers in your area? Do you know who runs the cows or sheep next door? Most of us probably do! During fire season, many of us text or call our neighbors when we see smoke. Perhaps it's time to formalize these calling trees. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you'd like help setting up a calling tree for your area.
- Situational Awareness: If you're like me, your ear can tell the difference between a fire plane and a regular aircraft. Whenever I'm outside this time of year, I scan the horizon for smoke - especially when I hear fire planes overhead. I carry fire tools and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during fire season, as well, and I'm constantly aware of my surroundings when I'm working in dry grass or brushland.
Wildfire, obviously, is a significant threat in our region - and one that can be incredibly stressful to livestock and people alike. Preparation - though planning, improving our stockmanship skills, making our homes and ranches fire safe - can help reduce this stress. For more information, check out these resources: