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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

Livestock and Predators No Easy Answers

Livestock and Predators: No Easy Answers

by Dan Macon of Auburn, CA

Since we’ve raised sheep commercially (and even when our sheep enterprise was a hobby), we’ve been committed to trying to live with the predators in our environment. Over the years, we’ve lost just a handful of sheep — several to coyotes, at least one each to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and four in one night to a neighbor’s dog. Mostly, though, our commitment to nonlethal predator protection tools has worked. A combination of electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, sheep selection and grazing management has allowed us to co-exist with the predators in our environment. However, as I talk with other sheep producers in California and elsewhere in the West (and even overseas via Facebook and Twitter), I realize that our approach won’t work for everyone. As we face the prospect of wolves returning to our part of the Sierra foothills in my lifetime, I’m even more convinced that there are no easy answers to the question of livestock-predator co-existence.

My first experience with coyote predation happened shortly after we moved to Auburn in 2001. One morning, we noticed that we were missing a feeder lamb. The rest of the sheep were bunched in a far corner of the pasture and kept looking to the other side of the field where an irrigation canal ran through our property. I checked the ditch, and found the dead lamb halfway under water. Its throat was torn out, and a portion of it had been eaten. We called the county trapper, who confirmed that it was a coyote.

Looking back on this incident, I realize several things — about predators and my attitudes toward them. First, we lost the value of the lamb that died — a direct economic loss. More than that, however, I suspect that the stress experienced by the other lambs caused a number of indirect economic costs (like a temporary drop in weight gain, for example). I also learned something about myself — I learned that had I observed the coyote in the act of killing or feeding on my lamb, I would have taken lethal action to stop it (that is, I would have shot it). I also learned that I couldn’t have brought myself to kill just any coyote — I would need proof that a specific, individual coyote was the culprit. In other words, I learned that I would take action to directly intervene in the death of my sheep, but I wasn’t comfortable taking random or preemptive action to prevent other coyotes from hunting my sheep. Later, when we lost the four ewes to a dog, I also realized that as much as I like dogs, I would shoot a dog in the act of killing my sheep (I didn’t take such action in this case, but the dog was impounded by Animal Control and the owner was required to make restitution).

Livestock and Predators No Easy Answers

Wolves, when they arrive, will be a different issue altogether. Personally, my commitment to coexistence will mean that I’ll work to find nonlethal protection techniques that are effective. Even without this commitment, however, state and federal laws give me no choice — it would be a criminal act for me to harm a wolf. The hunting behaviors and abilities of wolves are unlike those of any predators I’ve experienced. More — and bigger — livestock guardian dogs will probably be my primary tool, but this has its costs, too. Raising sheep is a business for me, and I’ll have to weigh the extra costs carefully.

Like all of the ranchers I know, I view the loss of any of the animals in my care as a personal failure. There are many reasons that sheep can die, and not all of them are preventable; however, every death affects me emotionally and economically. While I appreciate the efforts of agencies and nonprofit groups to reimburse ranchers for direct losses to wolves (and other predators in some regions), I feel like these direct costs are just part of the true impact of predators. Indirect impacts include reductions in reproductive success, weight loss, additional labor, and other additional costs (like feeding and caring for extra guard dogs, and increased liability insurance costs associated with these bigger dogs). Finally, a dead ewe or ram represents the loss of genetic potential. My sheep, like most herds and flocks, have been bred specifically for my environment and operation. I can’t simply go out and replace a ewe that has been killed with something from the sales yard and expect similar productivity. This has multi-year ramifications. Any investment in new genetics takes several years to provide a return, and there are also lifetime productivity losses. In my flock, a ewe might have 12-15 lambs during her productive life. If she’s been killed, I lose that as well. As part of my work with UC Rangelands and as part of my graduate studies at Colorado State, I’m helping develop a rancher survey to begin looking at these indirect impacts. I think the results of this long-term project will be important and insightful.

Several weeks ago, a friend and fellow northern California rancher told me, “The hard part about the wolf/livestock issue may not be the animals, but the people. Ever since 1492 in North America, and before, man has dealt with predators in one way or another. That’s 524 years. Now, only since 1995 when wolves were re-introduced, our elite, progressive society has demanded that we change our thoughts and attitudes. That is only 21 years. That is a lot to ask of people!” I think she has a point — and it reflects part of the greater divide between urban and rural people the world over. Perspectives on predators depend, at least in part, on their proximity to your home and livelihood.

Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m getting older, but these issues seem much more complicated to me than when I was a younger man. So much of the success (or failure) of nonlethal predator protection tools depends on the frame of reference of the person using (or not using) them. I’ve come to understand that these tools are like any other approach to raising livestock. If you believe they’ll work, you’ll find a way to make them work. If you don’t believe they’ll work, they’ll seem like a lot of extra effort and expense — and ultimately they won’t work for you. Like all complex socio-ecological issues, there isn’t any one-size-fits-all answer to co-existing with predators.

Spotlight On: Farming Systems & Approaches

Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

The Hand-Harvested Food Challenge

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In the winter of 2011, Daniel mentioned a fourteen-year-old student of his who had spent a whole month eating only foods gathered from the wild. “Could we go for two days on the hand-harvested food we have here?’ he asked. “Let’s give it a try!” I responded with my usual enthusiasm. We assembled the ingredients on the table. Everything on that table had passed through our hands. We knew all the costs and calories associated with it. No hidden injustice, no questionable pesticides. We felt joy at living in such an edible world.

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 1

I am certainly not the most able of dairymen, nor the most skilled among vegetable growers, and by no means am I to be counted amongst the ranks of the master teamsters of draft horses. If there is anything remarkable about my story it is that someone could know so little about farming as I did when I started out and still manage to make a good life of it.

LittleField Notes Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

LittleField Notes: Prodigal Sun & Food Ethics

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To my great delight a sizable portion of the general eating public has over the past few years decided to begin to care a great deal about where their food comes from. This is good for small farmers. It bodes well for the future of the planet and leaves me hopeful. People seem to be taking Wendell Berry’s words to heart that “eating is an agricultural act;” that with every forkful we are participating in the act of farming.

Cultivating Questions Cultivator Setups and Deer Fencing

Cultivating Questions: Cultivator Set-ups and Deer Fencing

We know all too well the frustration of putting your heart and soul into a crop only to have the wildlife consume it before you can get it harvested let alone to market. Our farm sits next to several thousand acres of state game lands and is the only produce operation in the area. As you can imagine, deer pressure can be intense. Neighbors have counted herds of 20 or more in our pastures.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 5

You might think that your new farm is fenced all wrong, or that a certain tree is in the wrong place, or that a wet area would be better drained, or that this gully would make a good pond site, or that a depression in the road should be filled, or that the old sheds should all come down right away. Well maybe you’re right on all counts. But maybe, you’re wrong.

The Farmer and the Horse

The Farmer & The Horse

In New Jersey — land of The Sopranos, Jersey Shore, and the Turnpike — farmland is more expensive than anywhere else. It’s not an easy place to try to start a career as a farmer. But for a new generation of farmers inspired by sustainability, everything seems possible. Even a farm powered by draft horses.

Portrait of a Garden

Portrait of a Garden

As the seasons slip by at a centuries-old Dutch estate, an 85-year-old pruning master and the owner work on cultivating crops in the kitchen garden. To do this successfully requires a degree of obsessiveness, the old man explains in this calm, observational documentary. The pruning master still works every day. It would be easier if he were only 60 and young.

LittleField Notes Hay

LittleField Notes: Hay

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Farming never fails to dish up one lesson in humility after another. Despite having all the weather knowledge the information-age has to offer, farmers will still lose hay to the rain, apple blossoms to frost, winter wheat to drought… If we are slow to learn humility in Nature’s presence we can be sure that another lesson is never far off.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Farm To School Programs Take Root

All aim to re-connect school kids with healthy local food.

Henpecked Compost and U-Mix Potting Soil

We have hesitated to go public with our potting mix, not because the formula is top secret, but because our greenhouse experience is limited in years and scale. Nevertheless, we would like to offer what we have learned in hopes of showing that something as seemingly insignificant as putting together a potting mix can be integrated into a systems approach to farming.

Fjordworks A History of Wrecks Part 2

Fjordworks: A History of Wrecks Part 2

It is always fascinating and at times a little disconcerting to watch how seamlessly the macro-economics of trying to make a living as a farmer in such an out-of-balance society can morph us into shapes we never would have dreamed of when we were getting started. This year we will be putting in a refrigerated walk-in cooler which will allow us to put up more storage-share vegetables.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

LittleField Notes Farm Log

LittleField Notes: Farm Log

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My starting every column with a discussion of the weather set me to thinking about that old clichéd idea of talking about the weather; how it is all old men talk about downtown at the local coffee shop; how they sit for hours telling endless lies about how the snow was deeper, the nights colder and the hills steeper when they were young. However, clichés have basis in truth, and it is true that weather is a wonderful conversation opener.

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

Fjord Horses at Work in the Green Mountains of Vermont

We own a 40 jersey cow herd and sell most of their milk to Cobb Hill Cheese, who makes farmstead cheeses. We have a four-acre market garden, which we cultivate with our team of Fjord horses and which supplies produce to a CSA program, farm stand and whole sale markets. Other members of the community add to the diversity of our farm by raising hay, sheep, chickens, pigs, bees, and berries, and tending the forest and the maple sugar-bush.

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic

We were inspired to try no-tilling vegetables into cover crops after attending the Groffs’ field day in 1996. No-tilling warm season vegetables has proved problematic at our site due to the mulch of cover crop residues keeping the soil too cool and attracting slugs. We thought that no-tilling garlic into this cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas might be the ticket as garlic seems to appreciate being mulched.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT