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Mules, donkeys protecting local farmers' herds

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Farmers say they protect livestock from predators

By Leslie Moore

After losing a newborn calf to a coyote 13 years ago, local farmer Henry Lee Colvin made protecting his livestock a top priority. After bringing in a couple of donkeys and mules, he says he hasn't lost a calf to coyotes since.

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A few years later, Colvin started raising registered Dorper and Katahdin sheep, which are considered prey animals, and have very little ability to defend themselves.

Colvin has 142 grown sheep, 11 lambs, 11 registered Angus cows and three calves. He knows there are coyotes close by, and he sometimes spots them near the edge of the fields.

After seeing the donkeys and mules in action - furiously chasing the coyotes out the field - he said he would recommend them to anyone else who wants to protect their livestock from predators.

Jeff Arnold of Arnold Farms agrees.

A couple of years ago, Arnold also had some newborn calves attacked by coyotes. Since buying a few donkeys and putting them in with his cattle, he hasn't lost a calf since.

"The cows that we put those donkeys with, we can tell a difference in it."

Arnold's son also raises sheep, and he credits the donkeys for keeping the coyotes away from them.

According to local registered Polled Hereford producer Chad Sullivan, donkeys are relatively inexpensive to buy and care for. The one he has was given to him.

"We don't feed him any grain," Sullivan said. "He just grazes the pasture."

He said the donkey has access to minerals in a barn.

Colvin said his donkeys also do well by grazing and eating hay. He only feeds the donkeys grain in harsh weather conditions. Because of current market prices for grain, this keeps the cost of maintaining donkeys at a minimum.

Colvin said female donkeys or "jennys" sometimes sell for a decent price, but are cheaper than they used to be. He said male donkeys, called "jacks," aren't worth much, and for a good reason.

"They're aggravating, you don't want to run them with sheep or cattle," Colvin said. "They'll run the sheep and cattle and you don't want to do that, they'll kill them."

Colvin was reminded of their reputation last year when a jack he bought to breed with the jennys killed two lambs. He gave the donkey away after that. However, he says his gelding, a male donkey that has been castrated, does well with the sheep and cattle.

"He's probably not as cantankerous as even a jenny," Colvin said.

He said the best situation for protecting livestock is to have a jenny with a baby, because her protective maternal instincts will likely extend to other animals in the pasture.

He said in the case of donkeys and mules, less is more. While one or two in a field will actively protect the livestock, having several of them in one field will lead to a heard of donkeys that aren't concerned about watching out for the cows and sheep.

He warns against having cats or dogs near donkeys, and especially mules, because it's in their nature to attack and kill them.

Colvin said it's also important to not let donkeys come around when it's feeding time for the sheep. He set up one of his gates with an opening large enough to allow sheep to get through, but small enough to keep the donkeys out.

"The sheep will get underneath the donkeys, and every once in a while the donkeys will kind of kick at them a little bit," Colvin said. "And you don't want that, especially when they're heavy with lambs."

For Sullivan, having a donkey seems to have brought his problem with coyotes to an end, as well.

"With donkeys, I think it's the noise they make just as much as the physical presence of them being there," Sullivan said. "It's kind of a disconcerting noise for coyotes."

He also has several flashing predator lights installed around his farm, as well as a long horned cow and a couple of barking dogs. Though he can't say one way of protection is more effective than another, he said not having the problem anymore is all that matters.

"I've had sheep here since '07, and I might lose them tonight, but I ain't lost a sheep yet," Colvin said.