by Bo Walker
MSU Extension Agent
For many in our community, protecting their livestock from predators is concern. Calving season, which is only a couple of months away, can be a time when predators can cause a lot of trouble for producers. However, with the help of emerging technologies and methodologies as well as some common sense and a little extra effort, local producers can hedge their bets against livestock loss due to predation this calving season.
Let’s start with the common sense first. Livestock tend to be a secondary prey source for most predators, meaning that predators prefer wild game, but will hunt a domestic animal opportunistically or when it’s the only option. So, bringing vulnerable (i.e. pregnant or calving) cows close to the house or somewhere you can keep an eye on them is a no-brainer. Most ranchers are probably out on the calving pasture at least once every day, so taking the time to survey the entire pasture doesn’t require too much additional effort. Taking a quick look around the entire calving grounds is a great way to catch predator sign, like tracks or scat, that may alert you to the presence of predators in the area. If you know you have predators visiting the calving area, then you can take appropriate measures to protect livestock.
Another commonsense step to reducing predator-livestock conflict during the calving season (and really all year) involves removing strong predator/scavenger attractants like livestock carcasses, stillborn calves, and even afterbirth piles. Removal of these potential predator food sources away from the herd helps decrease the likelihood of conflict between predators and livestock. Many ranches have ‘boneyards’ or bury pits where animal carcasses are disposed of. While there are many strategies and hypotheses surrounding carcass management, when predators on the landscape are a concern, the bottom line is: get the carcass away from the herd – especially when young, vulnerable calves are around. livestock remains should be buried at least 6-8 ft deep to ensure that no predators can dig up carcasses. Putting boneyards as far away from calving grounds and cow-calf pasture can help keep curious predators away from living livestock. Burying livestock remains is probably a better strategy than distributing carcasses to a far-off field, but just having a field far away from the pasture for animal remains is better than having those remains near the heard or amongst the herd. Another common although seemingly less effective strategy is to routinely burn livestock remains in leu of or prior to burying them. Burning may be a better option than burying carcasses when the ground is frozen; however, burning often leaves enough scent and remains to potentially still attract predators and is generally not the best strategy for keeping predators away. Regardless of your carcass management philosophy, taking the time to “sweep” the calving grounds every day or every couple of days during calving season and removing carcasses, stillbirths, and afterbirth piles will help reduce the risk of predator issues.
While total removal of predator attractants is ideal, it’s not always feasible. In such cases, adding physical barriers or other deterrents to attractants is the next best option. Electric fencing is useful in deterring predators from investigating other, non-animal attractants that may exist on the ranch like garbage dumpsters or grain bins. Many predators are attracted to local ranches by scents and smells generated by potential food sources other than livestock. In general, creating a barrier between predators and potential attractants which can’t be removed from the site, like compost piles or chicken coops, helps reduce the likelihood of ongoing predator issues. TO be sure, if you can put your compost inside a barn or put your trash cans or other smelly attractants inside and away from livestock, you should do that and not just rely on ‘fencing predators out’. But, if you can’t remove the attractant, electric fencing tends to be the easiest and cheapest way to do this as it is not particularly expensive, easy to take-up and put-down, comes with solar power options, and acts as a physical barrier between attractants and wildlife.
Physical barriers aren’t just useful for keeping predators away from ‘smelly’ attractants, they’re also useful in keeping predators out of your calving area. Perhaps the most effective means of keeping predators away from newborns is to do as much calving as possible in the barn or another indoor space. Unfortunately, that’s not always a practical solution, especially for larger operations. If you can’t put a wall and locked door between predators and your calves, the next best thing is probably fencing. Obviously, tall permanent fencing around a calving area is the best barrier against predators. However, permeant fencing of any height is expensive and often not practical. So, using temporary fencing – especially electrified fencing – may be a viable compromise. Adding fladry (i.e. a line of rope mounted along a fence with strips of colored fabric or flags) to existing fencing can also help deter predators, namely wolves, from entering a calving area. The flapping sound and movement of the flags creates predator confusion and caution. However, fladry is usually only effective for 30-45 days. After that, wolves tend to become accustomed to the fladry and are no longer scared of it. Using turbo-fladry or electrified fladry can extend the duration of fladry effectiveness by three or four times and make a temporary fence a formidable physical barrier to some predators.
Currently, research is being conducted to assess the effectiveness of automated light and sound perimeter systems as well as light and sound producing collars for livestock. Perimeter systems are typically triggered by motion on the outskirts of a protected perimeter although alternative methods of remote detection are being researched as well. Light and sound producing collars on livestock produce a series of random light flashes and loud sounds to scare and confuse predators. These collars are triggered by various mechanisms, although rapid cow movement or pulse tends to be the most common trigger. So, when a predator chases a cow and the cow runs or its heart rate jumps, the collar is triggered. There is even current research being conducted in the effectiveness of old-fashioned cow bells and their ability to deter a predator in pursuit. Unfortunately, the evidence currently available indicates that light and sound perimeter systems tend to decrease in effectiveness after a about a month as predators become used to the lights and sounds. Little data exists on the effectiveness of light and sound collars for livestock; however, more research is being done each day.
Overall, there is no one, simple solution to protecting cows and calves from predators during calving season. The true solution requires using a combination of practices that best suits your operation. Research utilizing new methodologies and tools and covering topics including remote detection and warning systems for producers, non-lethal predator deterrence systems, and more are being researched. So, the future is promising. As for now, using some common sense, keeping a clean and protected calving area, and being alert for predator sign in your area during the calving period are simple steps you can take to help protect your livestock. For more information regarding livestock-predator conflict, contact MSU Extension Agent, Bo Walker: [email protected]; 406-846-9709. As always, be well and keep in touch.