Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shepherding Skills

Throughout history, shepherds have occupied the lowest rung of society.  Tending stock has not been a desirable profession, and tending sheep has often been the least desirable of stock-tending occupations.

As a shepherd myself, I'm constantly amazed by how much there is to know in my line of work.  I have to know about sheep behavior, animal health, nutrition, wool management, and reproduction.  Since we use dogs extensively (both guardian dogs and herding dogs), I also have to know something about dog behavior, health, and nutrition.  I also need to know about how dogs and sheep interact.  Since we are a grass-based operation, I need to know about pasture management, grass growth and reproduction, ecological processes and soil management.  Because we market meat directly, I must know something about butchering and cooking.  Finally, since we are a small business, I need to know about accounting, business management, and marketing.

Sometimes I find the breadth of knowledge required for my job to be overwhelming, but mostly I find the demands of my work to be rewarding and mentally stimulating.  Several weeks ago, my border collie, Taff, was increasingly ineffective in moving the ewes.  Ewes are very protective of newborn lambs, and Taff was very intimidated.  I decided to use Taff and our younger dog, Mo, together.  It worked beautifully - Mo is young and enthusiastic, and his enthusiasm gave Taff the courage to stand up to the aggressive ewes.

We are also in the process of bonding two new guard dogs (Reno and Vegas) to their sheep.  Reno is nearly a year old, while Vegas is just 18 weeks old.  As puppies, they both want to play with their sheep sometimes (which is hard on the sheep).  We're trying dangle sticks (sticks on chains that hang from their collars).  These devices make it uncomfortable for the dogs to run, which keeps them (in theory) from chasing the livestock.  So far, this seems to be working.

Finally, we've tried a new system for marking lambs.  When we process newborn lambs, we put their mother's ear tag number on them with spray paint.  Twins get a red number, while singles get a blue number.  This has allowed us to tell at a glance whether we have new lambs in the paddock.  It's been a huge timesaver.

While shepherding may seem like a very simple "profession," I find the ongoing need to learn, adapt and adjust to be exciting and engaging.  I probably have 25-30 more years of doing this work ahead of me; I look forward to learning more about my occupation!

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