Homesteading and Livestock
Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Choosing the Right Rooster

Red Dorking Rooster Medium

Raising heritage breed chickens becomes more fun if we don’t buy chicks annually but instead hatch their eggs to develop a distinct flock of our own. Our attempt to improve each generation is a challenge that includes some knowledge of genetics, the characteristics of the breed and the personality traits we value. I tend to focus on choosing the right rooster because one male can fertilize 10 to 15 hens; choosing the right rooster makes the biggest impact on the quality of the flock.

Ten years ago, I began with a handful of Colored Dorking chicks and now have a flock of 15 hens and their rooster, “Buddy.” I was pretty proud of my flock until this spring’s egg-incubation was a big failure. The problem lies with Buddy, so let me tell you where I went wrong so you can avoid the same pitfall.

Choosing the Right Rooster for What?

When discussing how to choose the right rooster, we first need to ask the question, choosing the right rooster for what? There are two factors that are most important to get the flock we want:

1: Phenotype refers to how the bird looks — as opposed to the genotype, or what other characteristics its genes carry. If we want to help preserve heritage breed poultry, such as the Dorking chickens or the Narragansett turkeys at our farm, we want to help preserve the characteristic appearance of each breed.

The American Poultry Association (APA) Standards of Perfection book is best place to find the specific phenotype for each breed. It can be purchased here, but is expensive. Our library carries it, so I just borrow it for an occasional perusal. The information for your particular breed can also be found online.

The APA Standards of Perfection describes the Dorking chicken as: “having a rectangular body carried horizontally which is rather long, deep and moderately wide…The cock weighs about 9 pounds.” The description continues by describing the ratio of head-to-body, the tail and the appearance of the comb. I choose a replacement cockerel when they’re about 18 weeks of age. Although I can’t see them as mature roosters at that time, I can at least choose the best looking (phenotype) of the lot.

IMG0442 Medium

2: Personality of the rooster is probably as much of a factor to us homesteaders and breeders as is the appearance of the rooster. Most personality traits are based on how much vigor a particular male has. “Vigor” can be defined as “physical strength and good health,” but most of us would instead define vigor as how we want the male to act. Therefore, when choosing the desired personality, our decision is based on the amount of vigor a rooster has.

Some of us give priority to a male that will protect our hens. This requires a male with dominance and courage. Let’s call that a “high-vigor” rooster. Most of us also want a “nice” rooster that won’t spur us or hurt children. Let’s call that personality a “low-vigor” rooster. And for those of us wanting offspring, we need a male that will get his hens fertile. Let’s call that a “medium-vigor” rooster. High, medium, low--no wonder it’s tough to choose which rooster is best!

I’m focusing on rooster vigor this year, because I believe this is where Buddy falls short. His great-granddad spurred me at every opportunity and I vowed to breed a nicer rooster. I intentionally bred lower-vigor roosters with each successive generation, until I got Buddy. He doesn’t spur people, but unfortunately, he seldom bothers to mount his hens.

Colored Dorking Rooster Medium

Other Traits of a Good Rooster

So, where do I go from here and what will I do differently? Buddy does rarely hop on a hen and did actually get three of 24 incubator eggs fertile this past spring. Unfortunately, they didn't produce a cockerel. Therefore, I will attempt to incubate eggs again this summer with hopes of getting one or two cockerels from which to choose Buddy’s successor.

I will then attempt to go back up the scale of vigor in choosing roosters. I’ve learned that a cockerel can be lower on the pecking-order with other young cockerels, but still develop into a rooster with high vigor. Therefore, I can give some priority to phenotype, and don’t necessarily have to choose the cockerel that appears most “aggressive.” But I will also give priority to vigor. This year has taught me that I want fertile eggs and not a pet rooster!

Finally, I’ll be watchful next year to see how “vigorous” the new rooster is acting. If I have any doubts about his ability to get the hens fertile, I’ll go ahead and hatch more eggs even while still evaluating his vigor. The survival of heritage breeds is dependent on us choosing the right rooster with the correct amount of vigor.

Mary Lou Shaw and her husband grow most of their own food on their homestead with a large garden, orchard, bees, and rare-breed animals. These animals include Dutch Belted cows, Dorking chickens and Narragansett turkeys. Learn how to grow your own food with Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts  here.

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The Therapy of the Clothesline


It's a bright Monday afternoon, and I am standing outside with a basket full of washclothes and towels ready to be dried. As I begin to hang everything up, a big smile spreads across my face, and you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at me that this past week was one of the most stressful times I have ever faced. At this one particular moment, all of the problems seem to simply fade away, and good memories flood my mind and bring me therapy while I hang my laundry on the clothesline.

As I have mentioned in past articles, I grew up in a large city, and even with all the modern comforts I found myself constantly worried or sad at every turn. The most relaxing place in the whole world in my mind, however, was being by my Grandmother's side on her farm. My place of peace didn't have city water, central heat/air, or even a grocery store for at least thirty miles. On this farm, I drank water from a well, enjoyed a box fan pulling air through a screen door, and bringing in logs with every trip for the wood stove in Winter. I loved being there and harvesting veggies from the garden,  drinking goat's milk, and most of all helping my Grandma hang clothes on the line.

Today, when I find myself in a troublesome moment of worry or depression, I pray for God to bring a sunny day so I can take my basket outside and feel as close as I possibly can to the woman that inspired my whole way of living today. As I hang the laundry, I think of the massive remains of an Oak tree that part of her line connected to. When I return later in the day to collect it all and go back inside, I remember the delicate race my cousin and I would have to gather the laundry and return it to our Grandma.

My Grandmother has been gone for five years now, and it was one of the most painful moments of my life. I miss her every moment, but I am so grateful for the lessons she taught me along the way. One of the things that she taught through a wordless example was just what I wanted to share- simplicity can be therapeutic. All I can do is paint a picture of these days for you, to show that life is about the simple moments with the ones you love. You don't have to be rich or have everything going great for you in order to be able to smile and just enjoy life! It's all about having the right attitude, and keeping your head up while you focus on the good times and remember the folks who influenced you in a positive way.

The world is becoming more and more confusing, and it's hard to go a day without a bit of bad news or stress. When those moments come my way, I find great therapy outdoors at that clothesline. Maybe you prefer the dryer, but it's all about finding a moment that brings you peace. When you find something good that brings a smile to your face and makes you happy, hold tight to that.

Fala Burnette is a homesteader with her husband at Wolf Branch Homestead in Alabama. This year, they have raised a large crop of heirloom Hastings' Prolific corn that they are selling seed from, along with making their own cornmeal. They have just finished building a small cabin from lumber they have milled themselves. Along with breeding Khaki Campbell ducks, they are going to be trapping for furs this Winter. Read all of Fala's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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Pork Jerky from Happy Pigs

In a recent Mother Earth News magazine I was pleasantly surprised to see a blurb article about Roam Sticks – pork jerky products from John and Holly Arbuckle's of LaPlata, MO.  We became friends with John and Holly during our time at the Possibility Alliance which is just a couple miles down the road from their Singing Prairie Farm.  Back then, they were both working hard to grow their businesses – Holly as an acupuncturist and John as a farmer.

When we first started raising pigs on our urban homestead in Reno, John was an important mentor who happily answered all my newbie questions about raising, shooting, and butchering hogs. John’s knowledge and self-deprecating humor were super helpful as we navigated hog heaven on our homestead.   


I called John after reading the article to catch up and hear more about Roam Sticks: They’d come a long way with them since their crowdfunding campaign of a few years back.  And, like with any small farmer following a dream, I wanted to learn how it all came together and where they were heading with them.  What he shared was inspiring and fascinating and seemed like good fodder for a blog post.

However, before I get to the Roam Sticks, I want to share a few stories about John (after all, this is my blog post).

One of my fondest memories of John is from a Halloween evening we shared with our children.  All of the parents had been dreading the toxic candy our kids would soon be collecting but there was no way we weren’t going to trick or treat.  With our youngins all dressed up and raring to go, John showed up with a bag of grapes, apples, pencils and the like. As our group toddled towards each house John would dash ahead and give the goodies to the homeowner before our kids reached the door.  The wee ones were none the wiser and thrilled with what they were given.   

John also used to be a river guide.  One picture I saw had him in the back a raft loaded with people decked out in helmets and life jackets.  The water was huge and through the spray in the picture I could tell that the rafters were intensely focused on getting through alive – paddles pulling, faces intent, bodies straining to keep the boat on line.  And there’s John in the back with the rudder, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, emanating calmness.   

Lastly, years back, well before we knew him, John traveled across the Mexican desert on a donkey he called Milagro (“miracle”).  His trip began by crossing through the Rio Grande onto Mexican soil at what wound up being a military base.  Weeks of travel followed that included finding crystal caverns and nearly dying of thirst (Holly shared that most of John’s tales involve him running out of food and water).    

So aside from just wanting to give some color to readers about John the farmer (and here’s where I tie it all back together), his attention to what’s important and his willingness to put himself out there shows through with his Roam Sticks. 

Pork 2.0 

The vast majority of pork raised in the US is controlled by large corporations and is of low quality.  Pigs raised indoors on crummy food is bad for the pigs, bad for the land, and bad for the consumer.  Roam sticks are a way, John says, for the small pork farmer to be profitable while raising hogs in a way that is humane, regenerative to the land, and results in healthy, nutrient-dense meat.  According to John, over 80% of farmers selling pork at farmer’s markets are breaking even or loosing money.  Obviously, that is unsustainable.   

John raises his hogs on a mix of pasture, vegetables like pumpkins, kale, turnips, pea-vines (both planted specifically for the pigs and locally-sourced) and varying amounts of grain. The pigs are also “mob grazed" meaning they are rotated through pasture in tight groups mimicking how prey would normally eat if predators were on the loose. Rotational grazing has been promoted by Allan Savory for decades and has been shown to improve pasture, sequester carbon, decrease feed costs, and result in well-rounded diets, happy animals and superior meat.  Commonly done with cows, Joel Salatin has called his rotated, pasture-raised meat, “Salad Bar Beef”.  John’s adopted that, with Joel’s blessings, for his operation with “Salad Bar Pork”.   

Roam Sticks have been so successful that John cannot meet demand from his hogs alone.  As a result he now works with small-scale farmers throughout his region who raise hogs to his high standards.  With regular and frequent lab-testing of this pork he is confident it is the most nutritious pork in the country.  In addition to the success of Roam Sticks (they now “pay all the bills on the farm”) John and Holly are aiming to influence the national discussion around how pigs are raised while offering more small-scale farmers an opportunity to flourish.     

John the happy pig farmer

When we talked on the phone John was on his way to a Paleo food conference in Texas.  That demographic is going hog-wild (yuk-yuk) over the sticks.  He says their customers tend to be active types who munch them for a protein hit on hikes, while skiing, or working out.  Also, kids love them as healthy and tasty snacks.   They sell for $2 a stick (1 oz size) and can be found online at and

Oh, and they are delicious!  John was kind enough to send us some samples which were quickly devoured by our growing boys.  So here’s to John and Holly for developing a multifaceted, visionary, and creative solution for small-scale pig farmers!

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen runs the Be the Change Project with his wife in Reno, Nevada. They are dedicated to creating a just and life-sustaining world while having fun doing it. They were one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Homesteads of the Year in 2013. Shoot him an email.

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Breeding with Broodies


Hatching chicks by letting broody hens do the job is easy, satisfying and rewarding, if a little unpredictable – you don’t really have a way of knowing when a hen will go broody, and there is only so much you can do to encourage it. Here is what we do in our coop.

Provide enough nesting boxes – hens tend to sit where they are used to laying, and when one goes broody, you don’t want other competing with her for space. I know some people remove the broody and her eggs and place her in a different location (such as a secure enclosed section of the coop), but from our experience, this might make the broody abandon the eggs, so we just let our hens sit in the nesting box. Since we have plenty of boxes, this usually isn’t a problem.

We used to let hens accumulate a clutch of eggs in the hopes they would begin sitting, but it only resulted in a lot of mess and many spoiled or broken eggs. Now we collect every egg as soon as it is laid and, to encourage broodiness, provide a clutch of plastic dummy eggs (can be bought cheaply at a toy store or on e-bay). Note: we’ve had some hens begin sitting even without a clutch. Once the broody instinct kicks in, they’ll just do their thing.

Keep your fresh eggs in a cool, dry place (not in the fridge!), turning once a day, so you’ll always have some to give a broody when you have one. We don’t recommend using eggs that are over a week old.

Once a hen displays characteristic signs of broodiness (sitting over a chosen spot with puffed-up feathers, overnight as well as during the day, clucking in a characteristic manner and pecking anyone who gets too near), choose some of your freshest eggs to give her, or get some from another breeder. Your broody won’t know or care whether she’s sitting on her own eggs, eggs from another hen, or even duck or turkey eggs.

The number of eggs a hen can comfortably cover will depend on her size. On average, we give 6-7 eggs to a small to medium sized hen, and 8-10 to larger hens. I know many people let their hens sit on much larger clutches, but we have found this may result in uneven coverage and low hatching rates, as well as some chicks getting squashed during or shortly after hatching. We personally prefer to have fewer chicks with a higher survival rate.

Number your chosen eggs with a permanent marker, such as used on CDs. Don’t worry; this doesn’t damage the eggs in any way. This is important to keep track on the eggs – if any new ones happen to be added to the clutch (such as, if the broody steps down to eat and drink and another hen lays an egg in the same spot at the time), you’ll know to tell them apart easily.

Carefully slip the eggs under the broody, preferably after dark when she’s sleepy and less alert to any disturbances. You might wish to wear protective gloves if the hen pecks. Make sure she is settled and covers the eggs well. Mark the date on the calendar to avoid confusion; chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch. Don’t trust your memory because things happen and you might forget and plan a weekend trip just when the chicks are due to hatch.

Step back and let the broody hen do the job. Don’t worry if she doesn’t step down to eat and drink very often, but do allow her access to food and fresh water at all times.

The Chicks are Developing

Sixdays after the hen begins sitting, it is possible to see a developing chick’s heartbeat by illuminating the egg with a flashlight in the dark. This is called candling. It’s possible to do this easily by going into the coop at night, gently taking the eggs from under the broody one by one, and observing them against a flashlight. Discard any eggs that hadn’t developed.

Near day 21 (the day when the chicks are supposed to hatch), keep a close eye on your broody and soon-to-hatch eggs. It is possible to briefly peek under the broody to see if the hatching process has started. Do it really quickly to avoid loss of heat and moisture. If the eggs have begun hatching, carefully remove the hen to a safe location where she can remain with her chicks for the next few days (at this point, the hen is highly unlikely to abandon her eggs, even when moved). We use a large cardboard newspaper-lined box inside the house for that purpose. Don’t forget to provide food and water in a shallow tray. You don’t need to provide heating or teach the chicks to eat or drink – the mother hen will take care of that.

If the majority of the eggs have hatched and one or two show no signs of progress, candle them. If you see no sign of life, remove them to encourage the hen to get up and dedicate herself to caring for her new chicks.

Once the chicks are a couple of days old, we introduce them to the flock – under their mother’s protection and our supervision, of course. If we see no one is picking on them and all is fine, we let the mother hen and her brood out in the yard during the day. If other chickens display aggressive behavior, we lock them up and make sure they stay away from the chicks.

This post was an excerpt from my book, Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna's books are on her Author Page. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here

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Senior Living In The Mountains


Twenty years ago we moved to the mountains to live in our small cabin full time. We live here at 9,800’ elevation with our four German Shepherd dogs living fairly remotely. We are now in our senior years and while things have changed as we become older we are still able to handle the rigors of harsh mountain living by adjusting. While the weather is mostly ideal when it turns bad it can be severe. Last winter we had some of the heaviest snows we have seen in our time here plus winds that blew to hurricane force at times. We have spent much of the early spring time cutting up the trees blown over or broken off due to last winter weather. Maintenance of property can be never ending which for us seniors requires continual physical demands.

Living here fairly remotely can be strenuous at times, especially as we have become older. We heat our small  cabin with a woodstove and because of our long winter season we burn up to 10-11 cords of firewood per season. Assembling that much firewood requires considerable  physical labor in cutting the dead trees, hauling, splitting and stacking in preparation of next year's needs.

Hiking To The Mountain Top

Life for us is not all work and we enjoy the natural benefits which living in the mountains has to offer. Yesterday was one of those recreational times as we live on the last road that parallels the mountain to where we can simply walk out our back door and hike up the mountain. The top of the mountain is 10,500’ elevation and the climb is steep, demanding and very rugged. There are numerous deadfalls and dense stands of small trees not to mention the rocks that make footing treacherous. The closer to the top of the mountain the steeper it becomes. In places it is so steep it is necessary to crawl on all fours to safely ascend further. I would classify the hike that encompasses about two hours to the top of the mountain as extremely strenuous.

Maintaining Physical Well Being

As a senior it seems everything we do whether for recreation or work is strenuous and it is necessary to be relatively well conditioned to accomplish living as we do. We have seen those who have moved to our area and misjudged their physical ability only to become disappointed and ultimately leave. There are much easier hikes available but to enjoy the beauty from the top of the mountain it is necessary to keep fit enough to make that climb.

Disabilities Do Not Eliminate Activity - Only Slow Down Achievement

With very bad knees I was able to still make it to the top of the mountain by stepping carefully and progressing slowly. The view from the mountain top is remarkable and you can see for miles (see photo). Standing on the very top of the mountain is an exhilarating feeling that only those who are able to make the climb experience (see photo of Carol). The panorama and view is worth hiking, crawling and gasping for breath to get to the top. Sitting on top of a mountain sharing crackers and cheese while taking in the expansive view is not only enjoyable but leaves one feeling very small in those surroundings.  

Realistic Expectations For Seniors

Our lifestyle requires a certain determination, stubbornness and grit to enjoy the benefits of this type of life. Before making the decision or attempting to live as we do it might be a good idea to have a physical from a doctor who will be straightforward in letting you know if it is within your ability or not. The cost of the physical is far less than jumping into a mountain lifestyle that may not totally suit you and which you may end up leaving. Mountain living is also mostly outdoor living and cohabiting with wildlife. If that is a concern then maybe another form of living is better suited for you. When we have hiked to the top of the mountain we have seen elk and bear as well as deer. Some people are unable to handle being adjacent to wildlife like that unless they are safely behind bars or there are thick glass walls between them and the animal. .

Nature Makes Its Own Symphony

I enjoy getting up early in the mornings to hear the sound of the birds welcoming the day. They all seem to have a different song and when they are singing it is a beautiful thing as they sing with all their being to greet the day. Same with the elk bugling in the fall. To me those sounds are like the most beautiful symphony ever played. Because of the ability of sound to travel great distances in the mountains I get up early to enjoy the birds and animals because as the day progresses there is the noise of vehicles, generators and the running of chainsaws (including ours).

Seniors Need Not Be Held Back - Only Readjust Techniques

For someone who is on the downhill side of their mid 70’s being able to undertake the rigors of a very strenuous hike to the top of the mountain seems to be a plus for myself or any other fairly well conditioned senior. There were a couple times that I was considering turning back but the desire to be on top of the mountain drove me on as the rewards far exceed the pain of the climb. Living in the mountains is strenuous and almost everything we do requires stamina/endurance, from fishing the trout streams for a meal or prospecting for gold.

Seniors Can Amaze Themselves And Others

There is a special satisfaction in knowing that as a senior we can live a mostly self sufficient lifestyle. Being able to live such a lifestyle in a location where almost everything accomplished is a strenuous activity is encouraging. Us seniors may do things a little slower and the technique may be different but we amaze ourselves with our ability to cope and accomplish tasks. We may be old but we are still capable of doing most of what we have done in the past like climbing to the mountain top, we just do it differently. As the photo on the mountain top shows there is still snow up there; we receive on average 20-24’ of snow per season. Just moving that much snow is strenuous and difficult but we just take our time and do it slightly differently. Sometimes we seniors amaze ourselves but we get the task done albeit differently.     

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their life in the mountains of S. Colorado go to:

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Transitioning Off the Grid


It is likely that we Americans will all be living off grid, in due course. Author Wendell Berry has observed that we are rapidly consuming the earth’s limited resources, and that our only “hope” may be in our collapse. As dark as such a thought may sound, it may be an unavoidable result of treating energy and commodities as undepletable, or of living beyond our financial and environmental means.

The popularity of tiny houses and off-grid homes harkens to the “back-to-the-land” movement of Helen and Scott Nearing here in Vermont, repeated in the oil crisis of the 1970’s. But when oil prices receded, so did Americans’ penchant for simpler, more self-reliant living. Henry David Thoreau advocated for a more independent life in his famous narrative about his sojourn at Walden Pond in New Hampshire. But living off-grid need not be the passion solely of the recluse: it appeals equally to those who wish to live sustainably, reduce their carbon footprint, or simply live more affordably.

My grandmother, a Depression-weathered farmer who recently passed away at age 100, said “There are two ways to get rich: earn more, or spend less.” I wish to offer here some suggestions on how to wean oneself off fossil fuel dependency, particularly for those who are of limited financial means. 

There are many people who desire to move off-grid, but are caught in the modern cycle of dependency whereby each paycheck goes to current subsistence, and the idea of living off-grid seems as remote as living in the Caribbean. Here are some ideas to consider:

1. The beginning is land. Unlike conventional housing where people buy house and land together, banks (especially in the present financial market) do not generally loan against raw land. And where they do, they typically expect 50% down. But with rural areas in malaise, more sellers will consider owner financing. Don’t wait for conventional financing -- start looking now, as the search itself is educational and will fuel your dreams.

2. Building a small house, without grid or other immediate power, allows a foothold from which an addition or further improvements may be added. This is the way the old timers used to do it -- build as you go, financed by the savings from what was once spent on rent or a large mortgage. A tiny house will serve the purpose, or a small permanent shack that will one day be the living room or kitchen in a larger residence.

3. Be willing to sacrifice the present for the future. One need not have a massive power array to live off-grid. A small generator is a luxury in the short term, while savings from former utility bills are accumulated for solar, hydro, or other alternative power sources. Don’t be misled by those who say that “solar power costs $30,000” -- that is only true if one demands the massive energy consumption from which we all must be weaned.

4. Buy windows, building materials, and other supplies at discount. This is the age of Craiglist. Utility trumps aesthetics. Windows of different sizes and colors can still be energy efficient. Others’ leftover building supplies can often be had “for a song.”

5. Consider a portable sawmill, to transform standing trees into a standing frame. For the modest budget, this can be a very economical way to create post-and-beam timbers while clearing land for garden or house-site.

6. Explore gravity-fed water, and whether state water laws permit such a use. (Amazingly, many modern laws prohibit this time-honored water supply.) Building codes should also be evaluated, where applicable: many building codes mandate petroleum-based insulation and exclude straw-bale or organic wool fibers. Crazy, but true.

Living off grid is sensible, even for those who do not embrace it as a moral mandate. But too many people hesitate to take the first step, or even thoroughly investigate the possibility, because they wrongly perceive that such a shift requires a huge leap, or massive capital. I hope these ideas serve to encourage more daring nature-lovers to seek the path to sustainable homesteading!  

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Raising the Livestock Guardian Dog Puppy

Maremma resized

It is common to receive conflicting advice on how to raise a full time working LGD. There are slightly different ways to introduce a LGD puppy to livestock and foster the bond between them. The method you use depends greatly upon your situation.

You may be an experienced LGD user with stock accustomed to living with a LGD. You might have an older reliable LGD to help serve as a mentor. Or this pup may be the very first LGD for you and your stock. You may work full time on your ranch or farm and available to monitor a growing pup with stock, or your job may take you away from your home for many hours every day. You might live on acreage with large flocks and have the ability to organize different or flexible groups of stock and a pup, or your space and animals may be very limited. And finally, your pup may have been born on a farm from excellent working parents and spent its early weeks in close contact with stock, while other pups may have come from unknown backgrounds or did not have these early sensory and formative experiences. In our various situations, we need to be flexible and adapt to our own specific needs.

Perhaps more important than one particular set of guidelines, is providing a reliable way to supervise the pup into early adulthood. It is crucial that all inappropriate behaviors – playing, chasing, biting, herding, barking, dominating, or other aggressive behaviors - be stopped to prevent them from being ingrained. This process is not really “training” in the classical sense and it definitely doesn’t require that level of control. LGDs are self-thinkers and they don’t need to be taught to protect. But even for young pups born with stock, continuing attention to their behavior through observation and time spent with the dog is essential.

It is important to remember that in their homelands, LGDs always worked in close partnership with their shepherds and other livestock guardian dogs. A pup was never left completely alone with stock. Despite the widespread and mistaken advice, both hands-off raising and placing a completely unsupervised pup directly with a flock are wrong. Keeping this knowledge in mind, how should you proceed to give your pup a good start as a working LGD?

Early Beginnings

Shar pup resized

In well-established flocks guarded by LGDs, pups grow up intimately with their stock. As they become larger, a pup is often penned with a few older or reliable animals that will not tolerate misbehavior, but also won’t injure the pup. The pup has access to a safe area where he can retreat or eat in peace. When he is large enough (30 to 40 pounds), the pup may join the larger flock, along with adult LGDs and human supervision. Owners or shepherds will continue to monitor his behavior, give him attention, and work on basic manners.

Small homesteads with fewer animals can adapt these techniques. The approach for the first few days away from mom and littermates can be found here

If you have an older, reliable LGD, your adult dog may be a good companion for your new pup. He might also serve as a mentor, but not all older dogs are good teachers and they may ignore misbehavior. Most adult LGDs over 2 or 3 years old will accept a young pup graciously. 

If you don’t have an older mentor for your pup, you will definitely need to do more supervision. If available, your pup can be penned with a couple of calm, steady animals that won’t bully or injure him, while you observe his behavior over time. On the other hand, skittish stock afraid of a dog may encourage chasing or playing. And small or baby animals could be easily injured by accident or they may try to play with the pup. Another option that folks often use is to pen the young pup right next to the stock to encourage familiarity between them both. A secure pen, which can be made of livestock panels, is also useful when you need to confine him for various purposes or time outs. It is also useful for feeding to prevent food aggression with other dogs or stock.

In all cases you should give the pup attention in his area: grooming, basic work on manners, and walks or exercise in the places where he will eventually work - but do not take him on walks off your property, into your house, or allow him to play with your housedogs in your yard. Formal perimeter walks are not necessary or particularly useful for a LGD, whose heritage lies in huge, migratory grazing with shepherds and flocks. A LGD remains home due to his bond with his stock - especially on open range - and good fencing in smaller areas. Your pup can have bones and other objects to play with in his area, but squeaky toys are not recommended to prevent the association of small animal sounds with play.

Take your pup with you as you do chores every day with your stock. Expose him to all the different species you want him to eventually protect. Let him drag a long line as you observe his interactions. Praise good behavior. Stop all bad behaviors such as chasing, playing, mouthing, or hard staring at stock – and you must correct them when you catch him right in the act. When you consistently see good behavior over time, start leaving him alone with stock where you can monitor him from a distance. Appropriate behavior includes walking calmly around the stock or lying near them with head and tail low, eyes averted, relaxed ears, non-threatening sniffing or licking at mouths, and following the animals as they graze. Immediately remove him back to his pen or tether him if he misbehaves. When you are unable to observe him with the stock, either tether him within the enclosure so that the stock can escape any bad behavior or place him in his area next to the stock.

Be especially careful with birthing animals and young babies. Immature dogs may interfere with the birthing process or attempt to protect babies from their mothers. Allow the young dog to calmly observe mothers and new babies, but don’t leave a him alone with birthing mothers until you are confident of his behavior, which probably will not be until the second birthing season at the earliest. Poultry guarding is the most challenging task we ask of LGDs, as birds are not the traditional stock of these dogs. A good guide to socializing LGDs to poultry can be found here

Adolescent Dogs 

Maremma adolscent resized

LGDs grow rapidly and your 8 or 9-month-old dog may look like an adult but he is far from it. From this point until he is a mature adult at age 2 or so, adolescent or teenage dogs may get into trouble. Some dogs mature early and may be reliable with stock at 15 to 18 months; but just like teenagers they may occasionally regress or have fits of irrational behavior, as well as large amounts of restless energy. Continue to observe your dog for the slightest signs of misbehavior and step back into your training/supervision when needed – using correction on a long line, a time out pen, or tethering when appropriate. Although your dog is not ruined if a mistake occurs, it must be stopped.

For helpful information on raising LGDs with cattle, Louise Liebenberg has an excellent post detailing her practices here. Practical problem solving can be found in the book Livestock Guardians, the Facebook group Learning About LGDs, and at 

Photos by: Sarplaniac pup by Louise Liebenberg, Grazerie, Alberta; Maremma pups by Deborah Reid, Black Alder Ranch, Idaho 

With more than 35 years of hands-on LGD experience, Jan Dohner writes for Mother Earth News and Storey Publishing. She is the author of Farm Dogs, The Encyclopedia of Animal Predators, and Livestock Guardians. For more information visit jandohner.comRead all of Jan's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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