by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Could an animal protect your livestock from predators? Food Animal Concerns Trust hosted Jan Dohner presenting “Livestock Guardian Animals: Llamas, Donkeys and Dogs” as a webinar recently to introduce how these animals can ward off predators and warn producers of predator dangers. She lives on her family farm in Michigan.
She described handling guardian animals as “a hands-on, farmer-based skill we bring into our lives and work at being successful over the long-term.”
It’s not a matter of getting a big dog and tossing it outside with the sheep.
As a disclaimer, Dohner said she generalizes in her statements about guardian animals, as exceptions exist among individual animals and on individual farms. But that doesn’t detract from the merit of using livestock guardian animals.
“The use of livestock guardian dogs is ancient,” Dohner said. “We rediscovered it in North America in the 1980s. The colonists coming to North America didn’t have experience in most cases.”
By then, most of the larger predators in Britain and Europe had either been driven to remote areas or had been rendered nearly extinct. That’s why when colonists came to North America, their first instinct was to kill them. That action brought its own issues, as the coyote population expanded from the West to the rest of the continent since coyotes no longer had natural predators.
Livestock guard dogs have been purposefully bred for a variety of traits for guarding and protecting livestock. They’re not herders, pets or companion animals. Though less traditional guardian animals, llamas and donkeys have been added as guardians in more recent years.
“You need to research the pros and cons and look at how they’d fit in with your farm,” Dohner said. “They’re not a tool you plug in; it’s a working partnership with a living creature.”
She said for success with livestock guardians, farmers need to understand how they work, make the right choice for their situation, discount myths and misconceptions, provide a good environment, use them in combination with other deterrents and understand that guardian animals aren’t a “magic bullet” for eliminating the threat of predators.
“In ancient times, llamas were never used for predator control,” Dohner said.
Their new role developed as some sheep owners noticed lower losses if they kept a llama with the flock.
“They’re highly social, especially if an only llama” in a flock of sheep, Dohner said.
Llamas are naturally aggressive to predators and canines. Mature llamas instinctively protect their young, herd mates and territory.
“They’ll place themselves on a higher point and even patrol the grazing area,” Dohner said “They may charge, kick or paw. They have a whole set of instinctual behaviors.”
Llamas also don’t challenge fencing or dig, and usually don’t threaten humans. For farmers with nearby neighbors, their quiet nature offers an advantage over dogs and donkeys. They’re also more easily accepted by stock that exhibits fear of dogs.
“There’s no extended training or socialization,” Dohner said. “They’re easy to care for and have similar care needs as your other animals.”
But llamas can’t provide the same measure of protection as dogs. They’re also prey animals themselves.
“I often say they’re a good choice for someone with low predator pressure,” Dohner said. “It’s not fair to place them in a situation where they’re at great risk. They can’t handle a very serious threat. They’re not protective against weasels or birds of prey. Some aren’t good at protecting at all.
“You don’t want to encourage friendliness to dogs. Some individuals can be dangerous to humans if they weren’t appropriately selected or handled when young.”
She advises farmers interested in llamas to obtain mature gelded males or mature female but never an intact male. The animals shouldn’t be removed from their peers early. They need to be with other llamas growing up. Dohner also noted that bottle-fed llamas may be overly pushy.
Dohner added that they don’t protect the family or farm as a dog would. They’re also less successful on large pastures, dense vegetation, extreme heat and humidity. They can’t be used alongside dogs and need specialized care.
“They might attempt to breed the flock and be aggressive about food,” Dohner said.
Many of these behavioral traits relate to age. Observing the llama with the stock can answer many questions about how the animal will respond.
“See if it can be handled,” Dohner said. “Avoid llamas that are trying to herd, boss the stock too much, protect their food, pace the fence or do not stay with the stock.”
It also may help to ask the seller for “lessons” on how to lead, catch and handle the llama.
“One thing we’ve noticed is if lambs are born in a flock with a guardian llama, it will bond more closely with it than their parents,” Dohner said.
She said good llama care includes arid pastures and llama mineral mix.
“They don’t do well on high protein or alfalfa,” Dohner said. “They can’t lick hard salt blocks.”
The animals can live outdoors if they have a turn-in and, if it gets below 15 degrees, a heated shelter.
To manage heat stress, the owner may shear them like sheep in the spring and use fans and misters.
Thought they don’t typically challenge fencing, despite the fact that many can jump 4.5 feet. But they can crawl under fencing up 12 inches or higher.
“The most tricky thing is they’ll stick their heads through openings out of curiosity and they can get stuck,” Dohner said.
Llamas’ padded feet have large toenails that need trimming annually. Wet pastures can cause rain rot. Some llamas need their teeth floated when older. Males develop six to eight sharp canines between ages two and four.
“Most owners have the vet remove them or have them trimmed,” Dohner said.
Unlike social horses, llamas don’t like being brushed, but they need thorough grooming a couple times a year. Like most livestock, they need vaccinations and parasite control measures.
Dohner advises would-be llama owners to prepare with the shelter, fencing and catch pen in advance. After bringing it home, pen the llama in a small area for several days. If the stock seems very upset about the newcomer, pen the llama next to them and feed them along the common fence line.
“It’s not good to give the llama too much attention as you want to get them get used to their new herd mates,” Dohner said. “They may try to herd a new lamb away from its mother.”
Even for a year afterwards, herdsmen should monitor the livestock’s birthing and breeding times.