Skip to main content

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!


Popular posts from this blog

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and p…

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.
If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and appar…

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the id…