Every rancher dreads getting that phone call - "Your cows [sheep, goats, etc.] are out." And anyone who relies on fences to keep livestock contained has probably received that call at some point. Fences fail, gates are left open, somebody forgets to hook up the electric fence energizer. Whenever I get that call, I drop everything else and take care of getting our sheep back where they belong. Getting our livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) back in the sheep paddock can sometimes be more problematic!
Over the years, I've come to realize the importance of a well-bonded LGD. Even if our sheep escape, a well-bonded dog will stay with them - and will often come back with the flock when we herd them back to the paddock. But sometimes, a dog will get out of our fences to chase off a predator. Sometimes a dog will simply decide to explore the neighborhood. Sometimes a dog will slip a collar or scoot through a gate when we're moving the sheep.
LGDs can get into trouble when this happens. One of our earlier dogs, Reno, loved chicken dinners - woe to the free-range chickens that might be nearby. He also disliked outdoor cats immensely (and often to their detriment). And so on the occasions that he got out of the sheep paddock, I was often in a hurry to catch him and keep him out of trouble. I'd call to him and follow him around, trying to catch him by the collar. The more I called (often increasingly frantically), the more he'd run away from me. I joked that if he'd had five toes on a front paw, he would have flipped me off!
I discovered, however, almost by accident, that he would generally come back if I ignored him. One afternoon, he escaped and took off across the ranch. I went about fixing fence and checking sheep, and within five minutes, he was back and wanted to be back with his sheep. I've subsequently experienced the same thing with other dogs.
This morning, I got that call - "Your sheep are out." When I arrived, I found most of the sheep grazing in a neighbor's pasture - and spotted Dillon the LGD gallivanting across the far side of the pasture, perhaps a quarter-mile away. I focused on getting the sheep back into their paddock, and before I finished Dillon returned and allowed himself to be herded along with the sheep. A few minutes later, I found several straggler sheep outside another section of fence. As my border collie brought them back, I opened the electronet for them - allowing Dillon to escape again. Once again, I ignored him - and within minutes he walked up to me so I could catch his collar.
This kind of behavior, I think, is related to the bonding process that we use. I want my LGDs to know how to ride in the truck, to accept being walked on a leash or tied out on a chain while we're working sheep. But I most want them to want to be with their sheep in all circumstances. Teaching a livestock guardian dog to come when I call (or other obedience training, for that matter) seems to require a bond with me rather than with the livestock. A dog that sits, stays, and comes when I call, might prefer to be with me rather than with my sheep. Working LGDs are not pets, and so we have to meet them on their terms when we need them to guard livestock. Figuring this out has made catching the occasional wayward dog much less stressful!
As I've written numerous times, research into the efficacy of livestock protection tools, including livestock guardian dogs, is difficult (if not impossible). The traditional model for scientific inquiry - that of comparing a treatment to a control - is extremely challenging when it comes to livestock protection tools. Fundamentally, nobody wants to be part of the control group (that is, nobody wants to leave a group of livestock unprotected to see if the treatment works!). Further challenges arise when we begin thinking about other variables - questions like the specific environment, the predators in that environment, the dietary preferences of those predators, the surrounding land uses, and so on.
Yet these challenges don't mean that we shouldn't try to shed light on questions about where specific livestock protection tools may work, or where they may fail. I like the idea of doing case studies - real world examples of the success or failure of these tools. In my mind, a useful case study would objectively describe as many of the site- and operation-specific details as possible. Case studies could take into account that many real-world management systems employ multiple tools. And case studies could be important whether or not a particular approach successfully prevented predator losses - sometimes we learn more from our failures than from our successes. The following account, then, is my first attempt at writing one of these case studies.
Flying Mule Sheep Company grazes approximately 100 head of sheep on foothill annual rangeland west of Auburn, California, from mid-December through early April. The flock is comprised of bred ewes (approximately 80 head) and replacement yearling ewes (approximately 20 head). The grazed landscape is a large-lot subdivision (20-40 acre lots). Individual parcels are connected via paved and unpaved private roads and Nevada Irrigation District canals. Many residences have domestic dogs; some have horses and donkeys. Vegetation in the grazed landscape includes open grasslands, blue/live oak savanna, blue/live oak woodland, and riparian vegetation. Surrounding land uses include grazing land (cattle, sheep, and goats) and a large regional park (mostly wildland).
Twelve game cameras were placed throughout the grazed landscape in late December. Cameras were placed adjacent to game trails, roads, and canals to help determine the species of wildlife present and the frequency of camera "capture" in relationship to the proximity of livestock guardian dogs and sheep. In order of prevalence in game cameras from late December through early April, I noted coyotes, foxes, bobcats, and a single mountain lion (in the evening on March 1, 2020). Other wildlife caught on camera included deer, raccoons, skunks, jackrabbits, and turkeys.
During the graze period (December 15, 2019 through April 6, 2020), we had no predator losses. In early February, I found a buck that was likely killed by a mountain lion. On the night that we documented the mountain lion in a game camera (March 1), the flock was in a 13-acre paddock, the boundary of which was about 30 yards away from the camera location. On that date, there were 47 lambs with the ewes (between the ages of 1 day and 11 days). The sheep had been moved into this paddock on the morning of March 1. We lost three lambs during the time the sheep were in that paddock due to starvation or mis-mothering.
From a purely scientific standpoint, I cannot say that the dogs and electric fence prevented predation. While the cameras clearly demonstrated that we had predators in the vicinity of the sheep, I don't know that these specific predators would have killed sheep (rather than wildlife prey) if they'd had the opportunity. I don't know if these predators took livestock from unprotected herds/flocks during the same time period. That said, I can conclude that I feel much safer having dogs with the sheep in this landscape! I can also conclude that the mountain lion I caught in my camera has probably seem me more than I've seen it!
Registration is now open for several livestock-focused workshops offered by the University of California Cooperative Extension!
2019 Cattlemen's Symposium - March 20, 2019 (9am - 1pm)
Co-sponsored by the Tahoe Cattlemen's Association, the 2019 Cattlemen's Symposium will feature presentations on Genetic Improvement in Beef Cattle by Dr. Alison VanEenennaam of UC Davis, Cattle Marketing and Added-Value Programs by Dr. Tina Saitone of UC Davis, Managing Cattle Health by Dr. Gaby Meier of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and Managing Smutgrass on Irrigated Pasture by Josh Davy of UC Cooperative Extension.
The cost is just $15 per person and includes lunch! Register at http://ucanr.edu/2019cattlesymposium.
Livestock Protection Tools Field Day - March 29, 2019 (8:30am - 12pm)
Penn Valley, CA
Are you interested in learning about techniques for protecting your livestock from predators? Curious about nonlethal livestock protection tools but concerned about costs and effectiveness? Join UCCE for this hands-on field day. Our keynote speaker, Cat Urbigkit, operates a sheep and cattle ranch in western Wyoming. She'll share her experiences using livestock guardian dogs and other tools to protect livestock from wolves and other predators in extensive rangeland environments. The field day will also feature demonstrations of turbo-fladry, electric fencing systems, game cameras, low-cost GPS collars for livestock guardian dogs, and other tools. Wildlife Services specialists will cover preserving a livestock kill site, and George Edwards, executive director of the Montana Livestock Loss Board, will discuss compensation programs.
Please note: This field day is focused on on-the-ground solutions to predator losses in commercial ranching settings. The intended audience is commercial ranchers. We will be hosting a similar workshop for agency and nonprofit staff, as well as interested public, later in Spring 2019 – stay tuned for details.
No charge for this workshop! Please RSVP at http://ucanr.edu/livestockprotectiontoolsnevadaco/span>/span>
As you probably know if you've read previous posts on Ranching in the Sierra Foothills, my go-to tool for protecting sheep on our foothill rangeland and irrigated pasture is my livestock guardian dogs. Since we're trying to protect our sheep from carnivores, it makes sense to protect them with a carnivore! The right dog (or dogs) will protect our sheep from stray dogs, coyotes, mountain lions, black bears, foxes, and other predators. Check these previous posts to learn more about our livestock guardian dogs:
But livestock guardian dogs are not the only tool available! Some recent research suggests that an ever-changing mix of livestock protection tools may be necessary. Predators can adapt, and so must livestock producers. A 2017 paper in the Journal of Mammalogy tracked the adaptive use of a suite of nonlethal livestock protection tools in Idaho (see Stone et al. 2017, "Adaptive use of nonlethal strategies for minimizing wolf-sheep conflict in Idaho"). Other research acknowledges the difficulty designing experimental studies to analyze the effectiveness of specific tools (see Eklund et al. 2017, "Limited evidence on the effectiveness of interventions to reduce livestock predation by large carnivores").
But formal research isn't the only approach to determining whether a given tool works in a specific environment. On-the-ground use of these tools by ranchers in real-world production settings is invaluable. In my experience, the success or failure of a particular livestock protection tool depends, at least in part, on the paradigm and know-how of the person using the tool. I expect the livestock guardian dogs I've "trained" to work in my environment - and when they don't, I try to learn from my mistakes. My own hands-on experience with these dogs gives me a greater level of comfort in using them in a variety of settings. Similarly, my familiarity with electro-net fencing helps me adapt this tool to our environment.
Recently, a group of colleagues and I received grant funding to put on a series of Livestock Protection Tool Field Days in a number of northern California counties that have been visited by gray wolves (Nevada, Sierra, Plumas, Lassen, Modoc and Siskiyou). These field days will be held in late March 2019 (check the calendar on my website for exact dates - go to https://ucanr.edu/sites/Livestock/). In addition to providing information about using livestock guardian dogs in rangeland environments with both cattle and sheep, these field days will give producers an opportunity to set up and use some additional tools, including electro-net fencing, turbo fladry (an electrified fence with flapping red flags that apparently deters wolves), and FoxLights (a device that emits random flashes of light to mimic a person with a flashlight).
We've also purchased a half-mile of turbo fladry. Sometime in the next month, we'll set up a fladry barrier to familiarize ourselves with setting it up and taking it down. Stay tuned for information on this, as well!
As with any tools, there will be a learning curve for these new techniques. I've built lots of temporary electric fence, but laying out a quarter-mile of poly-wire with red vinyl flags will take a different technique. I'll need to learn to place the wire at the proper height to deter wolves. I'll need to figure out how to re-wind the fladry. As always, I'll track the cost of using these tools, as well. With livestock guardian dogs, the costs include dog food and vet bills. With fladry, the cost will mostly involve my own time.
Finally, I know that I learn best by doing. Reading about a technique or a tool is a helpful introduction, but I need to use these tools in a real-world setting to gain any sense about their effectiveness - and about my willingness to use them. I suspect many of you feel the same way! I hope you'll be able to make one of our field days in March!
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!