Helping people protect livestock against predators is something I’m passionate about, and I’m a firm believer that good livestock guardian dogs are one of the best investments you can make for your homestead. Livestock breeds — from chickens right up to cows — are prey species, which means that they’re on the menu for a number of predators. No matter where you live, there are predators. Even in suburban areas, predators like foxes, coyotes, and stray dogs are common. In more rural areas and some landscapes even larger predators like bobcats, mountain lions, wolves, and bears are a very real threat to your livestock. While livestock guardians can’t be in all places at all times, especially on a larger homestead, they are the best defense against predator loss in my opinion.
Typically, livestock guardian dogs — also called LGDs — are associated the most with sheep and goats. Using guardian dogs to live with poultry can be tricky as this isn’t what they were originally bred to do centuries ago, though some people have success with it. Sheep and goats, being smaller mammals, are a major target for predators. Also, because of their size (and ingenuity) they require similar fencing to that which guardian dogs need, which makes it very easy to house dogs with them.
In contrast, as you drive around the countryside, it’s less common to see guardian dogs living with cattle. While I can’t say for sure (at least not without conducting a large and impossible survey of all the farmers and ranchers in the country), I feel safe making some assumptions about why this may be the case. First of all, most breeds of cattle are indeed larger (I’ll touch on the miniatures later on in this post). While their size does not exempt them from predators by any means, it does rule out some of the smaller threats. A fox, for example, is not going to take down a cow. On larger farms, cows live in large herds; this gives them strength in numbers. If you’ve ever watched those documentaries of lions hunting water buffalo, you’ve seen how the mature buffalo will sometimes circle around the calves and form a hedge of protection. (You’ve also seen, of course, that it doesn’t always protect them sufficiently and sometimes, the predators win.) A large herd of cows can also form an intimidating formation to ward off threats. And lastly, larger cows can be housed in open, four-strand fencing or even as little as two strands of electric wire fencing. That means that guardian dogs would easily run right out of those fences, and upgrading the infrastructure to keep in guardian dogs would cost a pretty penny.
I also suspect that infrastructure is a large part of why it’s more common to see guardian donkeys living with cattle. They can live in the same type of enclosure and are known for their hatred of coyotes. Donkeys are not a bad option, but personally I prefer dogs for a few reasons: 1. Donkeys will not respond as readily to certain types of predators, particularly anything they don’t view as a threat to themselves. For smaller livestock, that might include foxes, raccoons, mink, etc. For cows, that might mean they don’t respond to black vultures, which will prey on newborns. 2. Like cows, they will be unable to engage multiple predators at once, nor will they be any good against the largest predators, like bears.
Are Cows Susceptible to Predators?
You may be wondering now if cows are really in danger from predators. The answer to that is “heck yes.” While they aren’t as high risk to predators as smaller livestock, that doesn’t mean there’s no threat. Below is an excerpt from the NASS U.S. Cattle and Calves Predator Loss report from 2000 (unfortunately that’s the most recent document available on their website). While it’s easy to imagine that cows are safe if they’re not in bear, wolf, or cougar country, you might be surprised to see below that dogs and coyotes killed more cows and calves than bears, mountain lions, and wolves combined in 2000. For that matter, the numbers lost just to dogs is close to double losses from bears, mountain lions, and wolves combined.
Cows, just like their wild cousins the buffalo, can only do so much to protect themselves and their calves. Predators are designed to hunt, whereas prey like cows are primarily designed to detect and then flee from a threat. They will stand and fight if cornered or protecting offspring that can’t run fast enough, but they don’t stand much chance against large predators or large groups of predators. They are particularly at risk during calving season. The cow herself is at increased risk during calving, and of course a calf stands no chance at all against a predator if it is nested down away from its mother or if its mother is outnumbered. Black vultures, coyotes, mountain lions, domestic dogs, and bear are all threats to calves. I can guarantee you that no matter where you live, at least one of these predator species exists in your backyard.
So what does all of this information mean for homesteaders?
The first thing we have to consider as homesteaders or small farmers is that a lot of the factors that contribute to larger farms and ranches not using livestock guardian dogs do not apply to us. Most of us will have a small herd of cows, not 100+. Many of us will be rotating smaller species through the same paddocks as our cows, so our fences may already be appropriate for guardian dogs. Or, on the other hand, many of us will be starting from scratch on raw land rather than inheriting already fenced land, which means it will be easier and more cost effective to simply install dog-appropriate fencing at the start.
Not to sound calloused, but we also have a larger investment in and attachment to our cows than a rancher with hundreds of head of cattle. Don’t get me wrong, please: I fully understand that ranchers and farmers of all sizes of operations care about their animals and hate to see losses occur. However, when weighing the risks, costs, and benefits, losing one calf out of a hundred is not as devastating as losing the only calf born that year. There is a local raw milk herdshare near my area that was devastated by predator losses to the point that they had to temporarily close their herdshare in 2016. In total, they lost three adult cows and two calves and two other adult cows were injured according to their website. That is a huge financial loss on a small operation, not even taking into account the emotional turmoil.
We also usually aren’t ranching or farming full-time, which means we may have other jobs that take us away from the farm. That in turn means that smaller farmers may not have as much time to patrol pastures on horseback or 4-wheeler, manually checking and guarding the cows during calving season, as someone whose full time job is working on the ranch.
Another consideration for homesteaders and small farmers is that we often choose smaller breeds of livestock, such as miniature cattle. We do this because smaller livestock often fit our production needs and our smaller spaces better than their larger counterparts. If standard-sized cattle are at risk from predators, you can bet your bottom dollar that miniature livestock are doubly in danger.
My cows are miniature Jersey, and as you can see from the photos in this post, they are quite small. The calf was the size of my miniature Nigerian Dwarf goats at birth — and also about the same size as my four month old livestock guardian puppies who aren’t even half of their mature size yet. While Elsie might be able to scare off a single stray dog that wasn’t fully committed to its mission — she can give a pretty mean stare, as you see above — she would be no match for a pair or more of dogs/coyotes or even a single dog/coyote that was hell-bent on killing.
The Bottom Line – Cows Need Guardians, Too
All of this amounts to one thing for me — cows really need guardians, too. My preference is, of course, livestock guardian dogs. Nothing compares to those intelligent independent, hard working canines. I also truly believe that they are the best bet for protecting against multiple types of predators and larger predators as well. And of course the principle of safety in numbers still applies — areas with larger, more aggressive, or bigger groups of predators will need more dogs to sufficiently protect the livestock.
I feel very passionate about this subject, because I have lost chickens and even a pet dog to predators. I understand how infuriating and painful it is to lose animals in this way, and I like to help prevent it from happening for myself and other people. My livestock guardian dogs give me such an incredible peace of mind that I did not have before I got them. Even if I sold everything on the farm but one cow, I would still have guardian dogs — that is how strongly I feel about them. Shoot, to be honest I’d have them even if I had no livestock — they’re amazing dogs! I know everyone’s situation is different, but I urge anyone who can to get a livestock guardian dog or preferably a pair, if possible.
Do you have guardians for your livestock?