Among the most important employees on livestock farms are traditionally the herding dogs.
The bumper sticker that reads “My Border Collie is smarter than your honor student,” is popular and, according to farmers, true.
But the ubiquitous black and white shepherds are not the only canine employees on many farms. Dogs are often used as guardian animals. As are other animals.
A panel discussion of guardian animals at the Northeast Organic Farming Association – New Jersey Winter Conference in late January demonstrated how important guardian animals are and how important it is to determine just what the farm’s needs are in terms of guardians.
Lucia Huebner of Beechtree Farm in Hopewell, Mercer County, has sheep and knows the devastation of a loss to coyotes. She moderated the panel of four stock famers.
Three of the four farmers use guardian dogs. They explained the breeds are very different from the Border Collies, Australian shepherds and other popular herding breeds. They are dogs that live to protect their charges rather than organize them.
One of the popular guardian breeds is the Great Pyrenees. One of the panelists, Jon McConaughy of Double Brook Farm in Hopewell has a Great Pyrenees puppy “on the way up,” but his experienced dogs are three Maremmas. Another panelist, Meg Paska, known as Farmer Meg, in Somerset County, also uses Maremmas.
The two breeds are similar looking: large, mostly white with double coats. McConaughy claims the Great Pyrenees are a more aloof breed.
“Like Labs, the Maremmas need a lot of interaction with people,” McCounaghy said. He said one of his dogs is aggressive with people another is good with everyone. “They will guard when asked and will guard different things.” He explained it takes 18 months to bring up a puppy with the help of an adult dog.
McConaughy is the only member of the panel who also uses herding dogs. He has Border Collies that live with his family. He said both types of dogs know their job well.
Double Brook is the largest of the panelists’ farms. The spread is 500 acres with 300 breeder ewes, 500 pigs and 1,500 turkeys. McConaughy observes his guardian dogs doing their jobs and believes they do them well.
In contrast, Paska farms 20 acres up against a county park and the river, so she knew her 150 laying hens would be in danger from predation. “We have foxes, raptors, coyotes,” she said, adding predation dropped when she brought in the dogs. She said she got as much information as possible with the goal of having two well-trained dogs she could run the farm with and use to train new dogs.
“I took two females from the same litter, so there is lots of competition… it takes a lot of time and patience.” She said a hawk killed a chicken when the dogs were pups. She showed the dead bird to the dogs and they seemed to understand.
Farmer Meg is a one-woman operation that supplies cut flowers, makes goat’s milk soaps and beeswax candles and sells eggs from pasture-raised chickens. She also consults on beekeeping, gardening and livestock care. She holds yoga retreats on her farm every weekend with up to 25 people attending, including children. Because of this she has to be careful that her dogs are good with people. They were bred on a family farm, which she says is a big help.
Another panelist was PJ Murphy, who breeds meat goats in Pittstown. He has about 100 does right now. “I have gone through different dog breeds; now I only use dogs I breed myself,” he said. He had some bad experiences until he started breeding them.
He rented property 15 miles away from where he lived, so he knew he would have a coyote problem. But he brought in a dog from West Virginia that had not been trained.
“I need to have a dog I can handle,” Murphy said. He said he doesn’t subscribe to the philosophy that guardian dogs shouldn’t be touched. He said they have to have certain traits, a balance between their protective and prey drive, so they need human contact. “You’re the boss,” he said. “You need to teach them to manage different stock.”
Murphy said dogs don’t really settle until they are about 3-years-old.
Like the fourth panelist, Jessica Isbrecht of Green Dunchess Farm in Franklin Township, Murphy tried using a donkey once. “I had read about them. Some will guard and some won’t. They are bad interviewees.” He explained donkeys “are not sure what they need to do. Donkeys are out for themselves. Dogs know the difference between what they are supposed to protect and a predator.”
Usually. Murphy said trail riders come through his property and a dog went after them. He has since put up signs, “Dogs working, do not go near fence.”
Isbrecht tried both donkeys and alpacas before she settled on geese. She strongly advised against getting geese on Craig’s List. Isbrecht said keeping dogs is expensive, so she looked for alternatives.
Isbrecht has 100 acres which abuts 200 acres of grassland preserve that creates a big predator problem for her. She has a pet dog, a spaniel that originally lived in the city. “He had no idea what to make of the geese, but it only took one time of the geese coming after him for him to know what he is up against.”
Isbrecht said she has one goose she always needs to keep an eye on. “Never turn your back on them,” she said of geese, ‘and make sure you have a lot of padding on.”