Recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of introducing donkeys to my homestead.
A friend told me they make excellent guard animals, and, as I’m looking for something to protect my dwarf goats from the ravenous jaws of the black-backed jackals and genets that roam the area, I thought they might be the answer.
I am, however, nervous about investing so much in livestock (a pedigree donkey can cost as much as $2,000!) so, I decided to do some research into what it takes to care for a pair of donkeys.
I also checked whether my existing infrastructure would be sufficient and how difficult it would be to train a donkey to guard my goats.
Donkeys get a bad rap for being stubborn and recalcitrant but, on the flip side, can perform numerous handy tasks around the homestead if trained correctly.
Miniature donkeys make excellent companion animals, whereas a larger donkey can act as a guard for livestock, carry your camping gear for you, haul firewood, and perform other tasks often associated with beasts of burden.
Is It Easy to Buy a Donkey?
If you’re lucky, you could pick up a young donkey for less than $100 on Craigslist of a similar site. This option is ideal if you’re confident about training the animal because, at that price, it’s unlikely to have had much education.
For a first-time donkey owner, buying a more experienced animal from a reputable breeder is a better option, even though it will cost more.
Not only will you be getting a healthy donkey, but you’ll also get one that has a basic understanding of what you require of him.
Buying an untrained donkey could be a huge waste of money if you don’t have the wherewithal to teach him how to perform the tasks you’re expecting of him.
Even getting a couple of donkeys to act as livestock guard dogs needs a little forethought.
An adult donkey “with no prior contact with livestock,” for example, “may act aggressively when placed in the same pasture,” while “jacks, or intact male donkeys, are generally too rough with sheep and may harm or even kill livestock.”
The best place to find a reputable breeder who can guarantee you’re getting a healthy animal with a suitable temperament is through the American Donkey and Mule Society or the Canadian Donkey & Mule Association.
Is One Donkey Ever Enough?
Like horses, donkeys are herd animals, and all breeds of donkeys enjoy a vibrant social life.
Although donkeys get along well with other species, like goats, sheep, and even llama, a single donkey living without other donkey companions, is liable to be a sad donkey.
Some donkeys may form close relationships with horses and, from that point of view, make excellent low-maintenance companion animals.
In pretty much every other scenario, however, experts recommend getting a pair of donkeys, rather than just one, and keeping that pair together for the rest of their lives.
How Much Space Does a Donkey Need?
A standard donkey needs a minimum of 0.5 acres of space to graze and roam, although one acre is preferable for a larger animal.
Although miniature donkeys stand just 36 inches tall, they need a similar-sized space to forage, play, and exercise.
Even if they have adequate space, donkeys often find the acres of grass on the other side of the fence are much greener, so robust infrastructure is required to keep them safely contained.
As we already have fencing designed to keep pigs, goats, and horses in their rightful places, I’m confident this will be sufficient for donkeys too.
If, however, I was putting in a new fence for the sole purpose of defying my donkeys’ attempts to escape, I’d opt for a woven wire field fence topped with a strand or two of electric tape. (This is the type of fence I’m talking about at Tractor Supply)
This is what we’ve used to stop our dwarf goat buck from impregnating everything in sight, so I think it will do the job for donkeys as well, whether they’re standard size or miniature.
Will a Donkey Eat Its Way Through My Savings?
Like horses, donkeys are both grazers and browsers and will happily spend a morning nibbling away at blackberry bushes, hawthorn trees, and even heather.
Left to free-range for most of the day, donkeys that aren’t working will get most of the nutrition they need to maintain optimum body weight.
As donkeys were originally desert animals, they cope well with a range of different environments and are much more tolerant of drought conditions than other beasts of burden.
If you’re using your donkeys to plow, pull, or carry, you will need to supplement their feed, especially if they’re working long hours.
The best nutrition for these hardy creatures is a combination of roughage, in the form of high-quality barley straw or mixed grass hay, and high-fiber pellets, sugar beet, or chaff.
Here’s where to buy baled bermuda hay, sugar beet pulp, and chaff at Tractor Supply.
Although donkeys have a similar diet to horses, how they digest fiber is very different.
As a result, one of the most common problems with donkeys is obesity.
A basic rule of thumb is to feed your donkey around 1.3–2% of its body weight in hay or straw. For a standard donkey weighing around 400 lbs, that would equate to somewhere between 5 to 8 lbs per day.
On top of that, a hard-working donkey may need around 0,5 to 1lb of concentrates a day to maintain its body condition and energy levels.
When choosing a suitable grain-based feed for your donkey, be sure to “avoid anything that contains molasses or cereals or grains.” Such high-quality feed isn’t suitable for the trickle-feeding donkey and could result in either colic or laminitis.
Here’s a great feed for donkeys at Tractor Supply.
Is It Difficult to Keep a Donkey Happy and Healthy?
Like any other animal, a donkey requires proper care to keep it happy and healthy. That means more than just giving it access to grazing and fresh water.
Donkeys living on rough terrain will wear their hooves naturally but, for most homesteaders, finding a donkey farrier is a key aspect of their donkey management plan.
Donkey hooves, although similar to the horse, are “smaller, steeper and more flexible, but tougher.”
Without regularly trimming and proper hoof care, donkeys are prone to conditions such as foot rot, seedy toe, and white line disease.
A visit from a donkey farrier can also help alleviate symptoms of laminitis. (Read more about foot rot and trimming hooves!)
When it comes to veterinary care, donkeys generally require a lot less than horses. They are hardier, have coarser coats, and boast certain anatomical differences that make them more resilient than hot-blooded horses.
Despite being relatively disease-resistant, it’s recommended that you vaccinate your donkeys regularly and deworm them every couple of months using an equine dewormer that tackles the most common internal parasites, namely, tapeworm and strongyles (roundworm).
Here’s a good dewormer at Tractor Supply.
Depending on your location, you’ll probably have to vaccine:
- Annually for rabies
- Twice yearly for tetanus
- Twice yearly for West Nile virus
- Twice yearly for Eastern Equine Encephalitis
- Twice yearly for Western Equine Encephalitis
How Difficult Is It To Train A Donkey?
If you want your donkeys to act as livestock guard dogs, the training process is relatively straightforward. Guard donkeys don’t need specific training “but they’re easier to handle after they have become accustomed to a halter.”
Training a donkey for more complex tasks, like being ridden, carrying a pack, or pulling a cart requires considerably more time and patience.
Donkeys are renowned for being stubborn and recalcitrant but respond well to positive reinforcement training.
There are lots of useful videos available on YouTube with tips on getting your ass to work or starting him under saddle.
Here’s 85-year old Dick Courteau’s book Get Your Ass to Work. I’ve also included his lovely intro video below.
Here’s a great video of Nick the donkey being started under saddle:
Alternatively, you could contact a professional donkey trainer to give you a hand.
Adding Donkeys to My Homestead
It seems donkeys could be a useful addition to my smallholding, although my dreams of having miniature donkeys to protect my dwarf goats appear unrealistic. It seems as though a miniature donkey just isn’t big enough to tackle an aggressive jackal or genet.
One of the other realizations I’ve had is that, although donkeys are a lot cheaper to keep than horses, they’re by no means the cheapest livestock option around.
The cost of keeping a pair of donkeys could set me back a couple of thousand dollars a year, depending on my grazing and seasonal differences.
While I wasn’t thinking about raising donkeys for profit, it seems this is more feasible than I expected, thanks in part to the increasing demand for donkey milk.
After finding out more about the common breeds of donkeys, their playfulness and resilience still appeal to me, as does their versatility and capacity to perform tasks on the farm.
On that note, I’m off to find a reputable donkey breeder to chat to about a possible purchase. If you’re doing the same, please share your experiences in the comments below and let us know if you get a kick out of raising donkeys.