Keeping the Ranch Safe From Predators

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Photo by Nicolette Hahn Niman


Farms and ranches are home to abundant wildlife. For the most part, these animals are very welcome and their presence adds to the enjoyment of farming. But when you're raising livestock, predators are a constant concern. These days, most ranchers are trying to keep predators away from livestock without killing or injuring the predatory animals.

To accomplish this on our ranch, we have come to rely on guardian animals, whose mere presence offers a significant deterrent to potential predators of our animals. Because of the significant advantages of using guardian animals, they are becoming increasingly common in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture.

In our part of the country, the main predators are coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, raptors, and domestic dogs. Young calves and birthing mother cows are at risk from packs of coyotes or wandering dogs as well as mountain lions. But these predators rarely attack cattle because in doing so they put themselves at risk. Like the cape buffaloes we've all seen on the TV show Nature, mother cows will aggressively defend their young if attacked.

No amount of training will make a dog good at the task of being a guardian--they must do so instinctively.

Much easier prey are young goats and turkeys, for whom predator protection is absolutely essential. To safeguard them, we've been using guardian dogs. "The guarding dog is not a herding dog but rather a full-time member of the flock," USDA's website explains. It also notes that no amount of training will make a dog good at this task--they must do so instinctively.

Our dogs are both Turkish breeds--Akbash and Anatolian--that were developed specifically for the purpose of protecting livestock. Both have lived their entire lives among flocks or herds of farm animals. Our dogs live amongst the goats and turkeys they are protecting and bark at any potential predators to ward them off. To date, they have been extremely successful and we've lost no turkeys or goats to predators in spite of a healthy population of coyotes, bobcats, and domestic dogs and the occasional mountain lion on our ranch.

Lately, we've begun trying llamas as guardians for the goats. Llamas can be vigilant protectors of livestock herds and flocks. The beauty of llamas is that, like goats, they are browsing animals, eating naturally occurring vegetation. No additional feed needs to be brought in to sustain them.

Rumor has it that llamas are not as effective as dogs as keeping predators at bay. We've also heard that they can be surly beasts and quite unpleasant to deal with, even dangerous, especially for children. So far, our experience has been wholly positive, but only time will tell.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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