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Texas A&M AgriLife LGD Program Overview

by Bill Costanzo, LGD Program Specialist III


Sheep and goats are susceptible to predation from wild animals and domesticated dogs. Trained with natural instincts, Livestock guardian dogs (LGDs) can minimize predation on livestock. In 2009, the Texas A&M AgriLife Center in San Angelo acquired the Martin Research Ranch in Menard. The ranch ewes only weaned 20% of the lamb crop that year. The ranch tried llamas and donkeys with limited success. Since 2012, the lamb crop has exceeded 100 percent using LGDs to reduce predation. Sheep and goat producers interviewed by AgriLife personnel stated that they have had comparable results in their flocks, usually within one to two years after beginning to use LGDs. A 2022 study conducted by AgriLife personnel showed that dogs correctly bonded could help ewes achieve lamb crops over 100% within one year of use.

 

According to the 2015 USDA reports on sheep and goat losses across the US, 3.9% of the lamb crop totals $20.5 million, and 5% of the kid crop totals $8.7 million. In Texas, one of the nation's main lamb and kid-producing states, 10% of the lamb and 8.1% of the kid crop was lost to predation. Those losses amount to $4.3 Million to sheep producers and $4.4 Million to goat producers in Texas. The main predators were coyotes, domestic dogs, and bobcats, followed by lions, birds of prey, and feral pigs. In 37% of sheep-raising and 33% of goat operations, LGDs were used to prevent predation.

 

In Texas, LGDs are used differently than in other sheep and goat production areas in the US. While the mountain states with open ranges primarily use herders and LGDs with their flocks, producers in Texas with fenced ranches rely solely on their LGDs to protect their herds from predators. LGDs reduce predation by territorial exclusion, disruption, and confrontation. Territorial exclusion is significant for protection against other canine predators. LGDs patrol and scent mark their territory regularly. Other canines recognize these areas and stay out of the LGD's territory. Disruption is aggressive behavior, such as barking, often in the early morning and evening. LGDs bark to notify the predators of their existence in an area, which disrupts the predators' behavior patterns while searching for prey. Last, if a predator still decides to enter the LGD territory, the dogs will directly confront the predators. The confrontation between LGDs and predators is usually not lethal unless the dogs can corner the predator along a fence line.


Producers need help with using livestock protection animals. The two main problems producers face when using LGDs are proper bonding and feeding the dogs. Based on a six-year study by the researchers in the late 1980s (see Figure 1), almost half of the dogs died at the end of the six years. The leading cause of loss was accidents caused by dogs roaming. Of the 57% of dogs lost to accidents, most dogs were shot, run over by vehicles, or lost to poisons.


We are currently in the middle of a multi-year bonding project to try to decrease the number of dogs that roam from ranch boundaries. The leading cause of roaming is improper bonding to livestock at an early age. Our project involves bonding weaned puppies in pens with and without hot wire as singles and pairs. After four rounds of the project, preliminary results show that single dogs bonded in pens with hot wire are less likely to roam than dogs not bonded in hot wire pens or as pairs.

 

Proper bonding is the most critical area for producers to address when using LGDs. Properly bonded LGD pups have a higher success rate than adults and may roam less frequently if bonded in pens containing hot wire at the base. If producers can create stronger bonds with their livestock in their LGDs, they can reduce the predation of their lamb and kids' crops and increase their profit margins. We strongly recommend single bonding dogs in pens with hot wire based on the preliminary data from four rounds of the bonding project. Dogs from round five are currently at cooperating producers' ranches, and we started bonding round six puppies in February of 2024. Based on costs incurred with LGDs at the AgriLife Center over a 10-year life span, an LGD only needs to save approximately eight lambs or kids to pay for itself each year. 

 

Unlike guard llamas and donkeys, LGDs require a commercial dog chow to maintain a proper body conditioning score of four to five. Properly feeding LGDs is a significant concern for most sheep and goat ranchers, and it can be costly to maintain the dogs. Most large-scale producers use a feeding station to keep nontarget animals away from the dog's feed source. However, placing a feeding station in a pasture only draws more varmints for a free meal. Producers must construct a quality feeding station with an appropriate entrance for their LGD to enter but keep out sheep, goats, feral hogs, and other varmints if they want to keep dog chow, costs from skyrocketing.


In 2018, we performed a game camera study to evaluate self-feeders vs timed feeders. The study (see Figure 2) showed that timed feeders decreased the number of times nontarget species entered a feeding station to consume the dog chow. However, producers need to be mindful of resource guarding as it may occur more frequently with timed feeders if enough feed is not dispensed frequently enough for all dogs in a pasture. Additional feeding stations are another option to minimize resource guarding.


We have collected feeding station designs from several producers and built over fifteen units for our research ranches. (See Figure 3 below left.) These units have eliminated sheep, goats, and large hogs from entering the feeding stations, damaging the feeders, and consuming the dog chow. We have evaluated an RFID dog door on a feeding station to eliminate all nontarget animals from entering the units. (See Figure 3 below right.) We have successfully used the system in bonding pens with puppies but have struggled to train older adult dogs to use the station. Dogs trained on the station as puppies are likelier to continue using this door than adults. We are building an automated jump gate door that uses the dog's Oyster 3 LoRa GPS trackers and Bluetooth technology to activate the door. This system would allow us to track dog food consumption and visits to the station by the dogs over time to locate feeding stations based on need properly.

Producers can continue to stay updated on the progress of the LGD Program at the AgriLife Center in San Angelo, TX, by following their Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube pages @TAMUlivestockguarddog. Bill Costanzo also writes a monthly blog that can be viewed at https://sanangelo.tamu.edu/research/lgd/.


 

Bill Costanzo, was hired in January 2019 by the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Center in San Angelo as a Livestock Guardian Dog Research Specialist II.  Bill has used LGDs on his own sheep and goats for over 13 years. 





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