Chickens: devastation and 3-step proposal

Mad. Upset. Determined.

Our farm is in rural Wisconsin. Although we’re just 70 minutes from the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro, predators are everywhere: coyotes, wolves, bear, hawks, eagles, owls, weasels, muskrats, badgers, fox, raccoons, possums, stray cats and the occasional house dog turned hunter when allowed to roam the countryside. It’s amazing any livestock or songbird makes it. The challenge is made even greater when you raise animals on pasture – wide open spaces where threats lurk under leaves, in borrows beneath the grass, and in the skies above.

Although we sometimes hear packs of coyotes yipping close by, we’ve never felt threatened by them. Our cows are big, strong and stand down any canine that comes near. It’s amazing to watch them line up and prepare to charge. It’s also why don’t permit visitors to bring dogs to the farm. Keeping these species away from one another is better for the cows and safer for the dogs.

Freedom Ranger chicken

Freedom Ranger free-range chicken

When we told friends that we planned to free-range chickens this summer, many said “Hawks are going to be the problem.”

They were right. They were more than right.

When we started our tiny trial two months ago, we thought we’d see a 10-15% loss. Not so. At first, we thought the hawk sitting in the dead tree at the center of our farm was our only concern. And so, we watched. Then my husband brought out the binoculars and noted that it was a juvenile. One of two, as it turned out. Two young red-tailed hawks. We spotted the two adults a couple of days later. Then, one hot afternoon I counted seven raptors wheeling above our north pastures. As of today, half of our small flock is gone. Devastating, aggravating, frustrating, infuriating.

So, what to do? In truth, many farmers have found numbers of alternatives to free-ranging their flocks. Some enclose the chickens, turkeys or ducks within large wired-framed boxes or pens that are pulled over the fields once or twice a day in order to give the birds access to fresh grass. Other farmers have the chickens spend nights in a coop. During the days, the poultry scratches through grass and enjoys fresh air in an enclosed run. Both strategies protect the birds from flying predators. I used a portable pen last year with my tiny flock of ducks. The birds were safe, but they became habituated to the pen and the feed I provided twice a day. They refused for forage.

Free-range birds, on the other hand, are aggressive self-feeders. They go after practically anything that moves: frogs, flies, worms, small snakes, moths, beetles and ticks. They forage through grasses, weeds, and the herd. Yes, they actually pick the bothersome flies that bedevil my bovines. While I’d read that chickens would help clean pastures of fly larvae, I hadn’t expected them to mingle and mix with the moos. They do, and the cows have come to expect it. In fact, the adults lower their faces to be groomed. This is a boon because there are several types of flies that attack cow faces, eyes, bellies and legs. The flies are more than just irritating. They can cause cattle to lose weight and develop long-term health problems such as pink eye, which can lead to blindness.

Dave and I want to free-range chickens again, but the current approach is, to say the least, not working well. And so, my 3-step proposal:
2014 Purchase and begin training a livestock guardian dog (LGD) puppy
2015 Use the portable coop (Dave built it on an old boat trailer) in conjunction with electric-net fencing and a string-web canopy. The idea is to create a large circular pen with the electric-net and then criss-cross the area with either twine or plastic fish line to deter hawks from swooping down. This pen would be moved as needed to provide the chickens with fresh grass and insects. (Others have tried this with success.)
2016 Rely on the trained dog to defend the chickens.

The Livestock Guardian Dog (LGD) is a category of working dog that includes breeds from numbers of countries around the world. The breeds with which we’re most familiar in the USA are the Great Pyrenees (France/Spain), Meremma (central Italy), and the Akbash Dog and Anatolian Shepherd (both from Turkey). I’ve know about LGDs for several years, but only in connection with safeguarding goats, sheep and cows. Would a LGD, also called Livestock Protection Dog, guard poultry?

When I broached the idea to some friends, they were – let’s say – a bit skeptical. In fact, one said I’d have to find a dog that can fly. Well, not willing to give up, I searched out farmers and ranchers experienced with both chickens and LDGs. And wouldn’t you know it, there are several Facebook groups devoted to these working dogs.

When I posted my problem on the Learning About LGDs FB page, I immediately got over a dozen responses. Many described similar experiences and offered great advise. In a nutshell: yes, LGDs work well with free-range poultry; LGD required lots of training; and, the dog should be at least 18 months old, and preferably 24 months old before being left on it’s own to guard the chickens. Do I buy the puppy this year and start training, use netting next year, and finally rely on the LGD the following year?

When I put the idea to my husband David, he wisely brought up another point. While it would take two years to train the puppy, this dog would be a working partner for another 10+ years. Lots to consider.


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