Gord Schroeder says predation losses can’t be totally eliminated, but good management can keep them to a minimum
Demand for sheep and goats is sky high and growing — so why aren’t more farmers raising them?
The most common reason is fear of coyotes, said Gord Schroeder, executive director of the Saskatchewan Sheep Development Board.
“I’m tired of people saying that coyotes are a problem and that’s why we can’t go ahead,” said Schroeder, in a presentation at a recent Multi-Species Grazing Conference hosted by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.
“As goat and sheep producers, we’re going to learn to manage the problem. We’re going to grow in spite of coyotes and in spite of predation.”
Totally eliminating predator losses is impossible, but successful livestock operators have figured out ways to manage risk and prevent losses, he said.
When Schroeder ran a 450-ewe operation near Drake, Sask., he said he often spotted coyotes running through his flock and within a quarter-mile of his house.
Not all bad
He generally left them alone because in his experience, not all coyotes are livestock killers, and a chorus of spine-tingling coyote howls in the evening did not always herald the appearance of mass carnage in the morning.
Indiscriminate killing opens up a territorial vacuum that will be filled by new, and potentially worse, coyotes, he added.
Practices such as night penning, so-called coyote-proof fencing, and noise and light deterrents may offer short-term, temporary relief from the four-legged, furry terrorists.
“Coyotes will adapt to anything that you throw at them,” he said.
In one Ontario project he was involved in, a fence was built at enormous cost that was buried two feet in the ground and rose eight feet high, but coyotes still managed to get inside.
“There’s no one tool that you can use to eliminate coyote problems. You’re going to have to combine a number of different ones,” said Schroeder.
No one tool
First, check stock regularly. That means taking extra steps as soon as a problem appears. Keep weak or sick animals closer to the house for protection. Coyotes survive the winter mainly by feeding on carrion, so keeping deadstock out of reach by composting it or burying it in a specially built vessel avoids lending them a helping hand.
Calling and shooting is one of the best ways to get rid of bad actors in the coyote population because the most aggressive, opportunistic predators are the first to respond to the sounds of an animal in distress. But don’t bungle the shot, because they won’t fall for it a second time, he said.
Coyotes are lazy by nature. Their currency is food energy, and they are always looking for ways to conserve it by opting for the cheapest, easiest kills. That means they generally use the same paths, night after night. Setting a power snare on a trail beaten in the grass under the fence will often catch the culprit.
A good guardian dog is the best of all predation control methods, said Schroeder.
Different breeds have different characteristics. Great Pyrenees tend to stay close to the flock, while Akbash dogs tend to roam farther, noisily patrolling the perimeter. Anatolian shepherds are a more aggressive breed that won’t hesitate to pursue attackers, and may get into trouble with neighbours.
Schroeder used three dogs of different breeds with his flock to provide overlapping layers of security.
Getting a dog to work requires patience, especially during the critical bonding period. A balance between the need to provide grooming and worming care must be struck to avoid turning a pup into a “useless” pet.
Dogs provide round-the-clock protection from predators, and the sound of barking at night provides peace of mind because it means they are working hard.
Many shepherds and goatherds are reluctant to pasture their flocks on remote or bushy areas due to fears of predation, but a “good working dog will open all that land up for you,” he said.
Schroeder has heard from some producers that losses of up to 15 per cent per year due to predation must be accepted as the cost of doing business.
“But that’s your cream, your profit. You need to capture that,” he said. “Guardian dogs may not eliminate everything, but they sure will help.”