Researchers have determined the three most important llama traits that correlate with successful livestock guarding are alertness, leadership and weight. Weight is directly linked to age and maturity. Keeping these traits in mind, what should you be looking for in a good potential guard llama?
First, you want an adult llama not younger than 18 to 24 months in age. Most importantly, buying an adult allows you to evaluate his behavior more accurately than a younger llama. Older llamas have also learned to accept the regular handling that goes along with catching and haltering, toenail trimming, vetting, and possibly shearing. Ask the breeder to let you catch the llama, since some llamas are very difficult to catch and halter. If possible, ask the breeder if you can bring a strange dog into the llama’s line of sight or near his pasture to evaluate his response to canines.
It is important not buy a very young llama, or one that was bottle-fed, or brought up alone. In addition, llamas should not be weaned until 6 months of age. It is very important that a llama spends the first year and a half to two years in the company of other llamas and with normal mothering. This allows the llama to develop appropriate llama behaviors and develop mature territorial instincts. Lacking experience with other llamas and receiving too much human attention can cause the llama to bond with humans rather than other llamas. Over indulging a young llama and failing to set behavioral limits often results in a grown llama that views humans as competitors, resulting in a large animal that exhibits inappropriate and possibly dangerous behavior towards people.
Either females or gelded males can work as guardians. Gelded males are used more frequently because they are larger and less expensive. Male llamas weigh 300 pounds or more and stand 40 to 44 inches tall at the withers. Some owners report than a female llama can be more nurturing, especially if she has been used for breeding. A retired breeding female cannot only be very attentive, but is often available for a reasonable price. Llamas have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. Single llamas guard better than multiple llamas, since they will bond with their stock rather than each other.
Do not buy an intact male llama or a male that was used for breeding before gelding. Not only can an intact male challenge your authority, he will most likely attempt to breed your livestock, causing serious injury or death. If a llama was used for breeding, even gelding does not eliminate this threat to your livestock. Look for males that were never bred. When buying a gelded male, make sure he was neutered at least 90 days before your purchase. Also, you should confirm that his fighting teeth have been removed.
You are looking for an even-natured individual. Do not buy a llama that screams or spits at humans, paces his fence line, or does not allow people to enter his pen. Do not buy a llama that tries to chest-butt you, bothers your feet, or forces you to go around him rather than giving ground. Llamas can certainly be curious about you, but the best guardians are more independent or aloof. Also, avoid a llama that is over protective of his food or will not allow his manure pile to be cleaned.
If you are fortunate to find a llama that is already with stock, you can observe his behavior. Does he challenge his fencing or pace the fence looking for other llamas rather than staying with his stock? Instead, he should appear alert and curious about disturbances. He may associate with his stock or he might use a higher area of the pasture as a lookout, separating himself from his flock. Either is appropriate behavior. Ask if he was present during lambing or kidding seasons. Ask if he shows aggression toward dogs or gives alarm calls. Find out if he accepts familiar dogs on the farm, but be very cautious when using your own dogs in your llama’s pasture or enclosure.
If you know someone familiar with llamas, they can be very helpful to you in assessing good behavior, health, and conformation. If you are new to keeping llamas, you might plan several trips to the farm to gain some experience and confidence in handling your new llama.
You may be fortunate to find an experienced llama for sale or you can purchase a llama directly from a breeder. You can begin your search for a reputable llama breeder through the various regional and national llama associations. Some breeders specialize in raising llamas for use as livestock guardians. Expect to pay from $500 to $1500 or more for a gelded male llama, with females somewhat more expensive. Be aware that some breeders will not sell a llama to be used as a guardian if you have serious predator problems beyond foxes or the occasional solitary coyote. Llamas truly have no defense against packs of dogs or coyotes, wolves, bears, or the big cats. When faced with those serious predators, llama breeders use livestock guard dogs to protect their animals.
Generally speaking, llama rescue groups do not have many llamas that are suitable for work as guardians. Occasionally a llama is available at a livestock auction but you will not be able to assess his behavior around humans and livestock or if he is aggressive towards canines.
Bringing Your Llama Home
How you deal with introducing your llama to your stock depends on the prior experiences of both. Your new llama will understandably be nervous or uncertain at first. In the past, the standard advice was to just place the llama out in the field with his new stock. At times this does work; however, research has proven that you will have greater success if the llama and stock both have a chance to become acquainted with each other for several days in a smaller area such as a corral. This is especially important if your pasture area is large or if your sheep or goats are very flighty or do not flock well.
Some owners have reported that a llama will guard sheep better if he is introduced to them when lambs are present, although research hasn’t supported this observation. Many owners do report that llamas, especially females, are very interested in lambs.
If your llama is already accustomed to stock, he may run right up to them. Even if he is not experienced, he may just be very happy to be with some companions. Typically, even if he does not run towards the flock, he will be interested and curious in them. Occasionally a llama will be more aloof and calm when introduced to stock. In any case, he should settle down with a few hours although it will take several days for him to fully adjust. During this time your new llama may be much more interested in humans, seeking your attention or pacing the fence closest to you. Remember that he needs to bond with his new herd mates rather than you, so you should not give him too much attention until this has occurred.
If your stock has not seen a llama before, they may be very frightened or alarmed. If they are extremely nervous, it might be necessary to pen the llama next to the animals so that they can get used to each other through a fence. Entice your stock to feel more comfortable by feeding them next to each other for several days. Follow this side-by-side experience with penning them together for a few more days before turning them out on a large pasture.
One additional caution – be very careful introducing horses and llamas to each other if the horses are unfamiliar with llamas. Experienced owners recommend spending a month or so letting the horses safely observe the llamas before placing them together. Please be very careful with your farm dogs as well. Some llamas come to accept familiar dogs, even a livestock guard dog, but others do not.