So You Want To Buy A Guardian Llama...
Updated: Feb 2
Not every llama is destined to be an effective guardian so knowing what to look for when planning to purchase one can be a daunting task. Thankfully it doesn't have to be.
There is little that is as disappointing as losing livestock to predators. Best practices only go so far and then you will need to outsource the job to someone else. Whether that be a livestock guardian dog, donkey, mule, or even a llama, there are some animals that are better suited to the task than others.
A guard llama is used in farming to protect sheep, goats, hens or other livestock from coyotes, dogs, foxes and other predators. Llamas are territorial by nature and are instinctively suspicious of canines which lends to their use as guardians. In the past, a single gelded (castrated) male was recommended. Intact males are almost always discouraged due to their overall dangerous nature. In more recent years it has been discovered that single, unbred females, make better and safer guardians, but at Silver Prairie Stock & Poultry Farm we've had success with all types of llamas. From intact males, geldings and unbred/bred females. The truth is, regardless of gender or any other physical characteristics, it is the personality and natural instincts of the llama which will dictate it's feasibility for use as a guard animal.
Plenty of llamas will run away from predators while a few will stand their ground and even fewer yet will push towards a potential threat. The most observed atribute they have is in their keeping themselves between the potential threat and the herd, but in cases such as this there is little protection in the case of mulitple predators. That's why you need to be certain that the llama you choose has the behaviours necessary to be an effective livestock guardian.
It is best to obtain a llama from a reputable breeder that you can trust to give you honest information. While it is tempting to spend as little as possible and/or buy from an auction, there is simply no way to know the backstory on the animal or the potential for use as a guardian.
When llamas give birth the resulting llama is called a cria. Cria are cute and cuddly and distract like a shiny diamond. It's is a simple thing to buy on emotional impulse while dumbstruck by their big eyes, soft coat and curious nature but whose friend is this to be? Yours, or the stock you aim to protect?
When it comes to llamas, many people believe that buying a young cria may be the best route but they couldn't be more wrong. While raising a cria from a young age can be rewarding in that you are able to have a very tame and easily handled animal, it is counterproductive to obtaining an effective guardian. If your llama spends all the time sitting at the fence, staring out waiting for you to come and give it some attention, it isn't going to be on guard. Guarding is a trait that only some llamas possess. It is something you select for and not something that is a guarantee.
If this llama is meant to be your friend then by all means get a weaned cria and enjoy the outcome. Llamas make excellent companion animals. They hug, they play and they are incredibly curious. They aren't guards though. They begin to rely on you for protection or companionship and they certainly won't "lower their standards" to mingle with the herd that is in need of protection at that point. While sheep will somewhat crowd themselves around the llama's vacinity due to their herding nature, the llama won't be focused on them, but rather on you. The llama becomes something in need of a guardian just like the rest of the herd then. The issue is further compounded by stock such as goats where they are more than happy to herd off on their own away from the llama occasionally.
Both sheep and goats like to follow the largest member of the herd so when llamas live with them, they follow the llamas out to graze, to water and to safety. You want the llama to become friends with the stock in your herd to that end. You want the llama to be a bit standoffish as well. The more personable it is the less likely it is to be effective. It's one thing to have a llama that will let you pet it while it's head is in a bucket of grain, but the rest of the time it needs to have it's head in the guarding game. It's dangerous to handle the sheep on Silver Prairie Stock & Poultry Farm without removing the llamas from the equation. They don't like people or anything else messing with their friends!
The exception to this rule is buying from a breeder who breeds llamas and has guardians on site. If the cria has shown certain guarding traits and has been observing guardian llamas at work there is a greater chance that it too will possess the mentality required of a guardian. Trusting your breeder is key in this regard. A good breeder will guide you in the right direction and be able to tell you which cria have the potential to be effective guardians and which do not.
The issue then becomes the time before the cria will be able to be an effective guard. It takes two years for a llama to reach near full size and during that time they learn by observing other llamas around them. Provided there are guardian llamas in the vicinity, the cria will learn certain characteristics from them, should the cria possess the personality required for guarding themselves. Depending how old they were when they arrived on your farm they may still be learning or have only had a short introduction to guarding behaviour. The cria will need some time to become sure of themself and will often be too timid to be an effective guard for some time to come.
That is why it is best to start with a llama that is at least a couple of years old, from a farm that has guardian llamas onsite and that presents signs of good guarding behaviour.
So what should you be looking for to determine good guarding behaviour?
A good guard will approach a predator in a manner that indicates assuredness, yet with cautious investigation, and does not run from, but would rather chase, the cause of disturbance to deter it away from the rest of the herd. If it tries to put the run on your dog or cat, it's probably going to put the run on a coyote as well. It will be standoffish to people but will readily accept the herd it is meant to tend.
When llamas detect something foreign to them they do a series of things. They start with alarm calls. It sounds a bit like the car alarm in a Toyota Corolla. Badee-dee-dee-dee, badee-dee-dee-dee. At this point guardians will move forward while the others will hang back or begin to retreat to safety, depending on the threat. A lot of times the sounds they make are strange enough to an errant predator that it alone is a good deterent, but llamas are not defenseless either.
At Silver Prairie Stock & Poultry Farm we've witnessed the incredible way that llamas "roll" a coyote firsthand. After the alarm sounds were ineffective and the coyote had breached the fenceline, our gelding guardian llama named Harley, ran toward the coyote with his head stretched out low to the ground and then reared up. The natural defense of llamas is to stomp with their front legs. They hop off their front legs and bring them down, hard. This is what Harley did to the coyote. It took a couple attempts but once he made contact the coyote lost his footing and the llama just started hitting him with the side of his head while pushing him in a roll across the area with his front feet. The coyote managed to get away and fled but there is little doubt he had some bruises to remember the event by. That's something only a guardian llama would do.
There is one issue that is often presented when using a guardian llama. If a llama becomes preoccupied by a predator it is easy for other predators in the pack to come in behind and attack the other stock in the herd. Having an additional guardian like a livestock guardian dog or a donkey is a good idea but you can also use more than one llama if necessary.
Many people will tell you that you can't have multiple llamas and have them still be effective guardians but is not set in stone that you only need one llama. At Silver Prairie Stock & Poultry Farm we have mulitple guardian llamas. They watch over a variety of animals on the farm and are often split off on their own to tend a herd that may be kept on pasture elsewhere. The idea that llamas will group together and neglect the sheep is often currated by shareholders that possess llamas that did know show guarding characteristics prior to purchase.
If you have a good guardian llama you might even add a llama that doesn't have strong guarding characteristics but that does put themselves in front of the herd. In this case two female llama or a female llama and a gelding llama would be suitable. Geldings are male llamas that have been neutered and are no longer capable of breeding. Unless you are planning on breeding your llamas it is best to avoid getting an intact male. They are much more difficult to handle (especially when the females are in season), require additional space where they can be separated to avoid unscheduled mating and can hurt the stock they are meant to protect by attempting to mate with them. If you are going to use a llama that is less likely to approach the predator, and stands between danger and the herd instead, you should put the llama with the lesser guarding characteristics with the herd first and then add the proper guardian after. This gets the first llama to bond with the herd first. Add the guard afterwhich to bond with the rest of the group together. The result of this will be a llama that is more apt to staying with the herd while the other challenges the threat. Geldings are often the most cost effective way to obtain a good guardian llama. Males in general are more likely to possess guarding characteristics but given the aforementioned issues, geldings tend to be the best choice. When looking for a gelding llama ask the breeder if the llama showed guarding behaviours prior to being gelded. This is important as well. Just because he is a male llama it doesn't make him a guardian right away, so if he was gelded without any indications that he would be an effective guardian, chances will be that gelding him will have the opposite effect and make him more docile. If he is a solid guardian and shows the traits required it won't effect him to be gelded. It's in the personality of the llama and not something that they can be taught, once again.
A good guardian will tolerate your farm dog but will tend to chase it off when it gets too close, so if you are planning to use a livestock guardian dog you must be careful to introduce them correctly. Typically you would buy a young guardian dog that was born in an environment where stock similar to that which you have is also present. It will grow up outside with the stock it is intended to guard and when it comes home it will be young enough to still to bond with the herd. Bringing in the guardian dog as a puppy and at the same time as your llama, or adding the guardian dog prior to adding the llama, will have the best results. You want a good working relationship between your guardian llama and your guardian dog if they are to be effective in working in tandem.
Many of the best guardian llamas actually tend to be an intact female that has never been bred. She bonds to the herd and tends to look after the lambs as though they are her own. The issue then becomes keeping the llama separated from the ewes by using lambing jugs to avoid having the lambs bond to the llama, who is more than likely going to try and help dry the lambs off after they are born, when it is the ewe that should be doing so. This interest in the offspring often translates into the llama being more protective of the herd, especially during lambing season when predator determent is paramount.
Using an intact female and a gelding can also show good results as well. It should be noted however that if you choose to use a gelded llama that there is a chance that he will still attempt to breed with your ewes and your other llama. If you notice this behaviour (which usually occurs in the dark of night when you aren't watching) you must take measures to prevent it if at all possible. Llamas are quite likely to hurt a sheep or goat while trying to breed them and if your ewes are getting broken backs, then your losses are no different than they would be if you were feeding the coyotes.
Find a reputable breeder that has experience with guardian llamas and work with them to find a llama that will suit your needs. Find someone who is raising the same stock as you as well so that the llama is already used to the same animals prior to arriving to your farm. Introduce your new llama to your herd through the fence for a day or two at least (2 weeks is preferable) prior to adding it to your herd directly. It is a good idea to keep your new llama in an enclosure that allows for visual inspection and interaction for the initial period to observe for any issues or illness that may be present. If you are working with a reputable breeder there is less likeliness that these will be issues but a good quarantine period does more to protect your herd than a million shots of vaccine after something has already gone wrong.
An effective guardian is worth it's weight in gold, but an ineffective guardian will cost considerably more in the end, so don't be swayed by a cheap price tag or a cute face when buying a guardian llama. Find an aloof, somewhat pushy and headstrong example with the characteristics that are desired of a good guardian llama and your success is near guaranteed.
Not only will your herd appreciate it but so will your pocketbook!
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