Sheep and goats are susceptible to predation from various wild and domesticated animals. Historically, the sheep- and goat-producing regions of Texas effectively used lethal control tools to keep predator populations at bay. Over the past few decades, predator populations have grown exponentially due to several factors including new land ownership, bans on toxicants and introduction of feral pigs.
According to the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, Texas loses 10% of the annual lamb and kid crop to predation, leading to approximately $10 million in losses to Texas farmers and ranchers. However, losses are only reported after marking, and we estimate that 50% or more predation losses occur before marking. Moreover, lamb and goats have nearly doubled in value since 2015. Therefore, it can be safely estimated that these losses are double what USDA reports, and the issue is getting worse every year.
According to the same report, only one-third of Texas sheep and goat producers use livestock guardian dogs, LGDs, to prevent predation. Typically, LGDs reduce predation by territorial exclusion, disruption of predator behavior, and/or direct confrontation. Most adult LGDs are quite good at preventing predation, as long as they remain with their livestock. Unfortunately, nearly half of LGD don’t make it to adulthood for a variety of reasons, and those that make it to adulthood don’t always stay with the livestock that they are supposed to guard.
Based on a six-year study in the 1980s of nearly 500 LGDs, almost half of the dogs were dead at the end of the six years. The main cause of loss was accidents caused by dogs roaming. Of the 57% lost to accidents, most dogs were lost to poisons, being shot or run over by vehicles. In 2016, we conducted a small study of 24 adolescent LGDs and half of the LGDs were removed from ranching operations before one year had elapsed. Roaming and improper bonding were the primary reasons the dogs were removed.
We are currently in the middle of a multi-year bonding project to try and decrease the likelihood that LGDs roam from ranch boundaries. Our project consists of bonding weaned puppies in pens with and without hot wire as singles and as pairs. Preliminary results indicate that single dogs bonded in pens with hot wire are less likely to roam.
We are also conducting research to decrease non-target animal consumption of LGD food at feeding stations with RFID tags. And we have a very active GPS tracking program to test commercial products in the field so that ranchers can monitor LGDs without being present. To learn more about the Texas A&M AgriLife LGD program, visit our website, sign up for the newsletter, subscribe to the YouTube channel, and follow our social media pages.
The sheep and goat market has been very strong the past several years and demand seems to be outpacing supply. Texas has the infrastructure, knowledge and land resources to meet this demand, but predation must be controlled. We are confident that with better tools and improved LGD management practices, predation of sheep and goats can be kept to a minimum, allowing Texas ranchers to capitalize on the small ruminant opportunity.
– by Reid Redden, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at San Angelo center director and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service sheep and goat specialist
– Bill Costanzo, Texas A&M AgriLife Research livestock guardian dog specialist, San Angelo