Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Trailing sheep

I wrote this for the Working Border Collie magazine and i thought some of my family and friends that don't get the magazine might enjoy it.

We define trailing sheep as moving sheep on the roadway or across country using Border Collies, ATV’s and or horses. In our case we are trailing the sheep instead of hauling them in trailers, and the distance we normally trail is 1-5 miles. Using a trailer to haul a large number of ewes and young lambs is just not practical for our situation. We use electric net and 4 wire when we set up a temporary pasture. We also use livestock guardian dogs on our ranch and when we set up graze on outside pastures.

As our flock numbers grow we continue to look for sheep management practices that work for our flock, and grazing opportunities in our area. We pasture lamb in late April and early May. This is in part to take advantage of the growing season so we can pasture and not jug lamb. We are also able to utilize alfalfa stubble grazing well into fall, so we extend our grazing season past the irrigation season.

Most years we keep the flock on irrigated pasture until fall when they are trailed to alfalfa fields to graze the alfalfa stubble. This is beneficial to our flock as well as to the farmers who fields we are grazing. Sheep grazing significantly reduces the weevils and aphids that are so detrimental to the spring alfalfa crop. Most years we can keep the flock on the stubble until well into December, and even longer if we don’t have heavy snow or cold.

Having the ability to graze that long into the fall allows us to sell our lamb crop later in the year than many area ranches. We are shifting our production from feeder lambs to a medium framed grass feed finished lamb.

As this is a magazine about working Border Collies you may ask what the heck all this sheep background has to do with the dogs! That is a very simple answer. Without the dogs, and by the dogs I mean well trained Border Collies with push and stamina, we would never be able to trail sheep. If we could not trail sheep we would lose a significant piece of our income from the lambs.

Trailing sheep in the fall is not too bad. Most farmers have their crops in and sheep stepping into farmed fields is not a big deal. Most fields are not fenced. The lambs are older and usually move well with the ewes. We do wean the lambs in September, but we put the flock back together for the fall graze. The traffic in our area is light and 99% of the people we encounter are ranchers and farmers, and they don’t usually get impatient seeing others make their living from the land. Sheep do seem to have a homing signal for nice yards, flower gardens and hay barns, and keeping the sheep out of these areas is key to happy neighbors, and requires a good dog.

Trailing sheep in the spring with very young lambs and freshly planted potato, grain and alfalfa fields is a whole different ball game. This year we did not receive irrigation water. I won’t go into the gory/controversial details, but an acquaintance from the south east said it seemed that the water issues out west were as controversial as discussing politics or religion. I told him that out west water WAS politics and religion all rolled into one.

Not having water on our ranch meant we needed to find other ways to graze the sheep. We had enough graze for lambing and for a first cutting of alfalfa. We started to look for graze in the 1-5 mile range from the ranch. We found a farmer about 1.5 miles away who decided that his rye grass/alfalfa field was not worth much as a hay crop, but we knew it would make fine graze for us. We have a fair amount of experience grazing standing alfalfa, and I did not want to put the flock on the field while it was wet. Wet alfalfa significantly increases the chance of bloat. The week we needed to move sheep we had more than a week of much needed rain. Grateful as we were for rain I did not want to feed hay for 2 weeks or more if I could avoid it.

We decided to move the sheep across one of our pastures and up past our dry land to a neighbors fallow grain field that had grass and mustard growing. We also thought the move across our own land would be a good way to break in the young lambs for the larger move to the new field.

The help for this move consisted of my husband Martin and his good dog Duster, me and my dog Kell, and our 4 year old daughter Katy. Our 6 year old James was in wrestling camp that day or he would have been there too. The move was only ¾ of a mile, but this was June 1st and the lambs were born starting April 26th and ending the 3rd week in May. That is a lot of very young lambs.

We started bright and early, a bit too early as I found out when I failed to check for new lambs before we started the move. I knew there were two yearlings that looked liked they may still lamb, but I was in such a rush that I committed a cardinal shepherd’s sin and failed to check the flock the am before the move. We took the flock out of the back pasture and started them across the road to the other pasture. As the flock spilled out of the back field I then noticed a very agitated ewe and her very young lamb that Kell was trying his best to keep with the rest of the flock. This lil guy was less than 12 hours old and no way was his mother moving anywhere as long as that lamb was on the ground. We scooped the lamb up to ride across our lap as we rode. The ewe was still mad as a hatter, but she went along.

The crossing of the road went well and we settled into the move. The sheep were being moved across an alfalfa field that we planned to hay, while I did not worry about bloat for that amount of time, I did not want them getting settled on the field either.

Marty got off of the ATV to walk on foot and Katy took the ATV to hold one side of the sheep. I know 4 seems young to handle such a job, but Katy is already a good hand and she was on a very small ATV. I was bringing up the rear and the other side with Kell. We were about 10 min into the drive when I made the mistake of thinking that it was all going rather smoothly. About that time 50-75 lambs made a mad break back to the original field. This is the work and worry of trailing young animals be it sheep or cattle. If you get a few animals that break back and you can’t stop it rather quickly it turns into loosing the entire flock/herd back to the area you just gathered from.

This is one of many times that a good dog (in this case ones that can effectively work young lambs) is essential to a successful day. Both Duster and Kell broke back to stop the lambs and worked tirelessly to stop the group and bring them back to the main flock. I think we held our breath during this brief, but intense portion of the move.

Once back with the main flock there was consistently a handful of lambs that would try to break back, but we did not have any more big breaks. The flock was tucked safely in the new graze for the next several weeks.
When doing this kind of work we do use a whistle and commands, but for the most part we expect the older dogs to know their job and do it with little input from us. We do use young dogs for this kind of work, but when moving very young pairs (sheep or cattle) we prefer a broke dog with lots of experience. The young dogs tend to come into a large group and quickly get their brains a little fried. It takes some experience to learn to pace out for the entire drive.

This kind of work is very physically and mentally demanding for the dogs. An average move is 2 hours and most of that is in a sprint as the dog pushes the back and tucks the side. In most moves there is likely to be some yelling and confusion and dogs that want to sulk away and hide from such pressure are not useful.
For the move to the next pasture we enlisted the help of our good friend Geri Byrne. This move required us to take the sheep down a much longer stretch of road and we like to have a person in a vehicle to warn traffic. Both James and Katy were there to help, but we do not allow them on the public road if they are using a horse or an ATV. The kids road shotgun with “Ms Geri” until we got to private land where they can run the ATV. Geri also brings a dog to help push the sheep, and to block yards and driveways.

This move took approx 2 hours and took us across the same alfalfa field, down the road, and across a fallow grain field. There was a shorter route that would have been all public road, but it would take us next to a neighbor who once shot at a ditch rider (takes care of irrigation matters). We decided to take the cross country route and avoid that possible conflict.

The lambs moved much better this time, and we had no major breaks. The sheep were on this graze for 3 weeks and when they had finished we brought them home to vaccinate the lambs before trailing them to the next field, again approx 1.5 miles away. For this move we had another close friend Angie Untisz here visiting, and as luck would have it she had a good border collie with her!

We were trailing along well when I heard somebody scream “gate!!!” and “potato field!!!” There are some private agriculture wells in use around the area, and many are on potato fields. That time of year the potato plants are small and very fragile. In other words if you let 600-700 sheep run over them somebody is going to pay. I am always on the look out for new graze and taking care of fields along the way is a good way to acquire new fans. There was no excuse for not seeing that the gate was open, but it was blocked by very tall grass in the barrow pit.

No matter who should have seen the gate (this is the sort of subject that is later argued/joked about amongst husband and wife ranch teams) the sheep were flowing into the field and they had to be stopped. I was on an atv and I bailed off and sprinted to the barb wire fence as I sent Kell out to stop the sheep. My friend Angie was ahead of me and she sent her dog too. The sheep were stopped and turned with no damage to the potato plants. There is no way we would have been able to stop those sheep without working dogs. We could not drive onto the field and people on foot have no effect on a mob of sheep. Thank God for Border Collies and all their skill and heart.

Later in the summer we moved from our ranch to a grain field about ¾ of a mile away. This should not have been that difficult of a move, but we had to get past an alfalfa field that had about 12-18 inches of growth. We were able to keep the sheep on the very edge of the field, so not much trample, but it took a lot from the dogs. This was a friend’s field so we knew a small amount of trample was not a huge deal, but it is a very fine line with a mob of sheep. One second most the flock is in the road and the next most of them are all over the alfalfa field.

The dogs have to work very hard pushing the sheep on the side and at the same time keeping the sheep moving forward. Sometimes it seems like time stands still, and nothing is moving. The dogs are often very tired and also frustrated. It is a job that some dogs excel at due to a natural presence and stamina, and some dogs get frustrated and start to grip wildly or give up.

Kell will be 9 in February so I am grateful that my young dog Mint is a natural at that kind of work. When things are going smoothly it is a joy to watch the mob move along with a few Border Collies working tirelessly to make sure the “smoothly” stays In the job. For me there is never a time that I have more respect for the Border Collie then when they are doing a tough job that could not be accomplished without a good working dog.


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