When farmers have invested tens of thousands of dollars (or more) into their homesteads, farmland, and livestock, protecting that investment is a necessity that cannot be ignored. Most farmers go straight to dogs when they think about which animals can best protect their farm.
Few know that one of the animals they may already have can also be an excellent livestock guard! Have you ever wondered why some farmers have one donkey in their fields with their sheep or go?
Could a donkey be a great livestock guardian?
Are donkeys good protectors? The answer is…absolutely! If may not seem like it, but Donkeys are one of the best livestock guardians for smaller livestock. They are classified as livestock guardian animals and are excellent protectors of livestock and farm animals.
They are especially effective at guarding against canines such as wolves and coyotes as they are natural enemies.
History of Protection Donkeys
Donkeys have been domesticated to work and live along humans for more than 5,000 years. The animals placed important roles in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture and their use is still relevant today.
Donkeys are large, hooved animals that can stand up to 79 inches high and weigh anywhere from 180 to 1,000 pounds. They can also have a considerably long lifespan up to 50 years when they are cared for properly.
Donkeys as livestock protectors became increasingly popular in the United States during the 1970s when using toxins to control predators was outlawed federally. Many ranchers and farmers, especially in Texas and the Southwest, began to turn to livestock guardian dogs.
But even more turned to donkeys to guard their sheep and goats.
What Kind of Livestock Do They Protect Best?
Donkeys are best at protecting medium to large-sized livestock such as miniature cows, ponies, sheep, goats, and pigs. Donkeys are not cognizant of chickens, ducks, or other smaller livestock animals and may step on, or kick birds and small creatures.
Donkeys also protect against coyotes, wolves, and wild or roaming dogs as the two species have a natural dislike for one another. Donkeys are also capable of protecting against small packs of coyotes, but will not be effective against bears, cougars, and human predators.
Donkeys will also not keep snakes, rodents, or small varment at bay.
Rural farmers in the midwest whose only main concern for livestock predators is coyotes can often make great use of a donkey on their property or in their pasture.
Training a Donkey to Protect
The most important step to training a donkey to protect livestock is to choose the right type of donkey. Not all donkeys will be good at being livestock guardians with non-castrated males sometimes being aggressive towards sheep, goats, and other animals.
When choosing a guardian donkey, here are some things to consider:
- Choose a medium to large size donkey
- Use non-breeding female donkeys rather than males
- Choose a donkey you can resell or keep as a farm pet if it does not perform as a good guard
- Choose a donkey that has been raised with the type of livestock it is intended to guard
- Choose a donkey that has been raised away from dogs and other canines so that it’s natural instinct to defend against canines is intact
Farmers are also more successful with training donkeys to guard livestock when they understand that donkeys are territorial and are actually protecting their territory, not the animals themselves. Farmers should have just one donkey per pasture (unless it’s a female and her foal together) and are most effective in pastures that are less than 600 acres with less than 200 animals. Pastures should also be fairly flat without dense brush to help donkeys be most effective.
Donkeys not only have a natural territorial protectiveness but they also have herding instincts when properly bonded with the herd they are supposed to protect. Donkeys will naturally bray and charge at intruders such as coyotes which will alert the farmer and hopefully scare off the predator.
Donkeys are confrontational and will chase canines out of the pasture and will attack by striking the canine in the head or back with it’s front hooves. Large donkeys can often kill a coyote with one blow, although more often than not the canines run off.
After choosing a donkey follow these steps for training to guard sheep or goats:
- House the donkey and livestock next to each other but separately for the first week or two.
- Halter-break the donkey to be lead.
- Lead the donkey on a tether while introducing to the livestock on the other side of the fence.
- After 10 days or so, lead the donkey around to meet the livestock in the pasture where they can smell each other without a barrier. Tether the donkey in the pasture with the livestock for a week and do all of its grooming and feeding there.
- After the adaptation period, turn the donkey out to pasture with the livestock.
- Watch the donkey and livestock for signs of aggressiveness or incompatibility. If signs of aggression are shown, the donkey should be removed from the pasture.
- Feed the donkey with the herd so it feels like it is part of the herd.
- Teach the donkey to lift its feet for shoeing and veterinary work.
- Keep donkey from other donkeys and horses.
- Keep pastures fenced with strong, reliable materials to keep territory boundaries in place and to separate pastures.
- Do not allow farm dogs to become friendly with donkeys. Keep dogs away from the donkey to maintain its natural instinct against canines.
Eventually, the livestock will look to the donkey as a natural ally and protector and flock behind the donkey in times of danger or high alert. The donkey will not so much protect the livestock but is motivated by defending its territory from intruders.
Guardian Dog vs. Guard Donkey: Which is better?
Livestock Guardian Dogs (LGDs) and Guard donkeys are both effective at the jobs they were meant to do. However, there are some instances where an LGD might be better for a farm or ranch.
Guard donkeys also live considerably longer than LGDs when they are cared for properly. The average lifespan of a donkey in America that does not succumb to an attack or illness is 30-50 years, while LGD lifespan averages around 12-15 years.
A Livestock Guardian Dog is better for farms that:
- Are very large, more than 600 acres
- Have a variety of livestock other than sheep or goats
- Need protection from predators other than coyotes or wolves such as humans, bears, cougars, snakes, small mammals, or packs of animals
- Need personal protection in addition to livestock protection
- Want or need multiple guard animals
- Have the time and patience to provide intensive and consistent training for their LGDs
- You have other dogs on the farm such as free-roaming farm dogs or herding dogs
A Guardian Donkey is better for farms that:
- Have less than 600 acres
- Have small to medium-sized grazing livestock like sheep or goats
- Need protection from wild dogs, coyotes, or wolves
- Do not need personal protection
- Are not looking for a companion
- Need only one guard animal
- Do not have the time or patience to train a LGD
- Prefer a guard animal that can eat the same feed as the goats or sheep they are protecting
Once a farmer, rancher, or livestock manager is able to analyze their property’s needs, they will know which guard animal is best for their needs.