Warning some will find this topic uncomfortable, but it is part of our life.
Livestock is a big part of the homesteader’s life. They provide meat, milk, eggs, and a whole host of other products. They are a big investment of time, energy, emotion, and money. Loses are to be expected, it stinks but happens. No matter how well you care for your animals you will occasionally have to deal with disease, accidents, injury, and predation.
All of these can be greatly reduced by proper animal care. Keeping your animals area clean, ensuring good quality food, and clean water are key, plus allowing the animals to live as close to a natural life also helps animals stay healthy. Keeping a close eye on your livestock and the conditions of their containment can reduce the odds of injury. The one area where we have the least control is predators. We can build our fences horse high, bull strong, and pig tight and a determined predator will some times still find a way in to our livestock.
Types of Predators
As a homesteader goes down in size of livestock the number and types of predators we have to deal with goes up. For cattle, goats, and sheep the only predators we deal with are coyote, mountain lion, stray dogs, and in some areas of the country wolves. Once you step down to fowl or rabbits you still have all of the above and add to them raccoon, opossum, skunk, snakes, and birds of prey.
Just how is a small sized homestead supposed to keep their animals safe? We are going to go through a few ways to try to keep your animals alive.
Coyotes are an opportunistic predator. Unless really hungry they will not come close to a home. Coyotes have been known to take sheep, goats, young calves, and any type of fowl they can get their jaws on. They are most dangerous when they hunt in packs. The sound of a coyote pack yelping in the distance will cause the hair on the back of your head to stand up on end.
Stray and Untrained Pets
Around here stray and untrained dogs are our most common predator. They are a challenge in that they do not fear people like the coyotes do. They are willing to walk right up to your home. In many cases you may welcome them, even pet and feed them. The stray dogs are having to fend for themselves. These animal I really feel sorry for. The untrained dogs are the ones that bug me the most. Many people get a dog the same way they get a toy for their children. The children will love the dog, but as soon as the new wears off the dog is left to its own devices. Around here there is a whole group of people that just do not take care of their animals. I cannot tell you the number of times we have seen starving animals that stay close to a home nearby. We also have several feral cats in our area. Cats that were gotten as pets or in some cases their ancestors were gotten as pets and were left to fend for themselves.
Cats are not normally an issue except when you have small fowl or are trying to raise quail or rabbits. Once a desperate cat realizes there is a fertile hunting ground, trouble will follow. Both dogs and cats will continue to try your livestock’s defenses until they find a weakness. If a weakness if found these animals will come back regularly until they are either caught or the recourse runs out (that means all of you chickens are dead). If you have an active animal control they may be a good resource. You might however find that your animal control officer really isn’t that interested in doing a whole lot to help you out.
If you are in a situation where a neighbors pet is killing your livestock, please go to the neighbor first. Some will not listen to you, some will claim that it is not their animal that is responsible. If possible provide them with some form of proof, a game camera works great for proof. You may find that the neighbor will take responsibility for the actions of their pet and reimburse you for the damages caused. Please, do not be surprised if the pet owner does not take responsibility.
Again give your neighbor the opportunity to rectify the situation by either training or containing the animal. After this good faith gesture has been offered, other methods may be required. Depending on the size of the offending animal live traps or euthanasia may be your only options.
For fowl, small predators tend to be the greatest challenge. Raccoons are really too smart for their own good. If a raccoon cannot crawl through a fence, the will dig under. If they cannot dig under they will climb over. If they cannot climb over they will try to destroy the fence. These things are so smart that I have heard people tell stories of raccoons opening gates. Weasels, opossum, and skunks can be just a tenacious and cause as much damage.
Hawks, owls, and in some areas eagles can cause losses as well. The problem with flying predators is very similar to all of the others. Once a predator realizes there is a readily available source of food at you place, they will keep coming back.
Traditional fences and cover
I know this seems like it should just be a given, but there are things we can do to make our animals containment areas safer. A barbed wire fence may keep larger livestock in but it will do very little to keep predators out. If you have the money using hog wire or field fence for your fencing is going to do a better job of keeping predators out. There will still be weak points. The most common weak points are gates and where the land suddenly changes in elevation.
I know there is a movement to free ranging fowl and I like the idea, but for the safety of the animal I advise at the least a secure location for the birds to roost. For small animals like poultry double fencing is a good idea. Use chicken netting on the inside the layers the outside with 1×2 dog wire. This dramatically increases the strength of the fence down low where most animals will try to break through. You can also bury a few inches of the fencing to help prevent animals from trying to dig under. I have decided that I will line the bottom of the pen with treated lumber. This will keep many predators from being able to crawl under.
If you are in an area prone to flying predators, having a top on your animal containment can really reduce losses. Several years ago I had a free range egg operation. We kept around 50 hens at all times and had a good client base. A red tailed hawk found our little operation. I think the first time he/she found it was by sheer circumstance. It took out an older hen. She was too far from the pen. Less than a week later we lost another hen. Two successful kills was all it took to put my chickens on this hawks permanent menu. We saw a two day reprieve and then suffered losses three days in a row. That weekend I put a top on the chicken run and kept them in the pen for a nearly a week. About the sixth day of containment, I heard a major ruckus from the pen area. I ran out to find our no so friendly neighborhood hawk had somehow managed to get through the top screen and kill another chicken. Only now that he/she was trying to get away with its prize, couldn’t figure out a way out of the pen. This bird was removed from our situation and we didn’t suffer any more losses from predators for over a year and no more from flying predators.
When free ranging you can also make sure your animals have access to cover. Cover can be anything from shrubs to a wooded area. Every chicken I have ever lost to flying predators was out in an open field more than 50 feet away from any type of cover. You may lose a couple, but to be brutally honest these will be the birds that aren’t very smart. The rest will learn for the signs of flying predators and will head for cover whenever a wrong shadow crosses the ground or they hear the scream of a hawk or other predator.
Electric fences can be an incredible and flexible addition to any homestead. This is especially true for anyone who is trying to free range or even paddock shift their animals. With a solar fence charger, some push in fence posts, and a bit of wire you can create a fencing system that will do very well against the most common predators (the ones that can’t fly).
Wire placement and sizing of the solar charger are the two most difficult parts of an electric fence. I like the 25 mile charger, even if I am only fencing in one acre. Why? First we are solidly at the bottom end of its range, that means if I wish to expand later there will be no issue. Second, I like the charger to have some zap to it (pun intended). If you are using half of the potential for any machine it is more likely to breakdown.
How I like to set up an electric fence whether permanent or temporary is at least a 3 strand system. I will use pigs as an example. A pig is almost as bad an escape artist as a goat. The only reason I didn’t use goats for an example is because I have much less experience with them. With pigs the heights of the wires are as follows: first row between 8 and 12 inches off the ground, second row is right at 24 inches off the ground and the top row is between 30 and 36 inches. All three wires are hot (this means energized by the charger).
If used correctly traps can be quite effective at helping alleviate predation pressure on your livestock. We are going to cover two different types of traps, the live trap and the jaw trap. Yes, I know the jaw traps are controversial, but you know what? I have used them and they work in situations where all the others fail.
Live traps also called cage traps are the ones most people think about when someone mentions traps. They are basically a wire cage with a tripping mechanism in the back of the cage. These types of traps are baited and set in areas where the predators are most likely to find them. Using correct and desirable bait make this job easier. Cage traps come in a variety of sizes and should be selected based on the size of the animal you are expecting to apprehend. Cage traps are a little more socially acceptable, but depending on the predator involved may not be an option.
Live traps must be baited. When wanting to catch a predatory raccoon or opossum, I have found that the best bait is sardines or canned mackerel, but any food that has a strong scent can be used. If you are facing any of the larger predators, cage traps are not an option. Coyote and foxes are too observant to be caught by a cage trap. Yes I know there will be someone who has heard of someone who told a story about a guy who caught a coyote in a cage trap, and maybe they did, but nationally there are very few caught this way. In urban environments it might be easier because they have gotten used to having all kinds of new things around, but once you get rural at all that familiarity goes out the window.
Once you have captured the animal you will have to decide what you are going to do with it. There are many people who will take the offending animal and take it to a park or remote area and release the perpetrator. Others will dispatch the animal.
Jaw traps are without any doubt the most frowned upon by the animal rights people. They are welcome to their opinion, even if its wrong. The jaw traps of the past were quite gruesome. The old school jaw traps had teeth and were designed to break the bones of any animal that stepped into them. These style of traps are outlawed in most US states.
Modern jaw traps are a lot more humane. They no longer have teeth and most are padded. A properly adjusted trap very rarely does any permanent damage to the animal. Jaw traps can be path set or bait set. Path set means that you have found an area where the predator frequents and you set these traps in the high traffic areas of the predator. (Warning! Jaw traps cannot tell what is what. Anything that steps in them will get caught. If you are going to use these traps be sure that people or pets will not be in this area while the trap is set.) Bait set is the one that I have used in the past. Find the remains of an animal that the coyote has taken and place the traps in that area. They will come back to finish off the carcass or just hang out.
If you are going to use jaw traps, you must check on the traps each day. Jaw traps are a big responsibility, do not do this lightly.
Remember the only reason you are trying to catch these animals are because they have killed some of your livestock. If you don’t fix the situation it will not be long before you have no more chickens, ducks, or whatever.
It is unusual for a coyote to take a large adult livestock that is healthy. They tend to target young and sickly animals. The primary culprit for taking larger livestock are male coyotes, between the ages of 3 to 5.
In many cases predator hunting is a better answer for larger predators. Coyotes are very smart. You normally only have to kill one or two before the whole pack realizes that your farm is a danger zone. I will say this, anytime you see a predator that shows no sign of fear, can become dangerous, that animal should be dealt with.
A predator call can be utilized to make hunting coyotes and foxes much easier. There are several different types of predator calls, some are supposed to even draw bear. You will want to talk to someone at your local sporting goods store to help you select a call.
Predator hunting can reduce your homestead losses and if you want you can harvest the hides to sell/trade or even make things. I love working with hides.
The Homestead Dog
This may be the best answer for all of the above. As long as you select a protective breed, a good dog will stop most if not all homestead predation. I know that the dog cannot be everywhere all the time and I have seen raccoons still take a chicken every so often even with a dog. Dogs are very effective for protection of goats and sheep, especially is you select and train a Livestock Guard Dog. I go into this discussion in depth in the post Selecting the Homesteader’s or Prepper’s Dog.
Have you had to deal with predators on the homestead? What did you do? Were you successful? I would really like to hear. Thanks
Bringing Rural Back
You can like The Rural Economist on Facebook follow on The Rural Economist on Gplus. We now have a YouTube channel and we cover all sorts of things. Hop on over and check them out, oh and don’t forget to subscribe. I have just joined Instagram if you would like you can follow us HERE. We will be sharing several things over the next year, I hope to see you there.