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The Culture of Stockmanship

Like any other activity that involves other living beings, stockmanship is a complicated concept, one that is further complicated by the fact that it involves other species.  As I look back over my experience in working with livestock, I marvel at how much I have learned.  Stockmanship involves skills that are based on trial and error, observation, and cross-species communication.

When we first started raising sheep, we'd build a small pen - or trap - in which to catch the sheep.  We lacked the experience and confidence to be able to handle the sheep to give them shots or load them in the trailer.  As we grew our flock, we'd build elaborate alleys and pens to load them in the trailer when we needed to move them.  Today, with the help of a good border collie, I loaded two rams in the trailer at the side of a country road - no fences and no feed to lure them into the trailer.

Stockmanship, to me, involves the ability to safely and humanely work with livestock.  This work includes moving animals from one pasture to another, loading them into a trailer (quietly), restraining them for inoculations or other treatments, and a variety of other tasks.  I am finding that being a good stockman requires a combination of confidence and observation - confidence to try something (even though it might not work) and observation of behavior, health and other communication from the animals themselves.  A ewe with droopy ears might need doctoring.  An steer that holds it's head high and snorts at my border collie might need a gentle hand when moving from pasture to pasture.

There exists a culture of stockmanship, as well.  This includes offers of help - trading of labor without keeping track of the balance of these trades.  This culture, I think, derives from the common experience of having to work until a job is done - you don't quit moving the sheep at 5 o'clock.

One of my favorite novels, Fencing the Sky by James Galvin, describes this culture of stockmanship like this:

"Mike had tried to convince Oscar that a community of small ranch families was the perfect Marxist society, where everyone had enough but not too much.  Everyone worked together - loaning machinery, lending a hand - a Utopian idea, a way of life.

"Funny, thought Oscar, I thought that was freedom.  Marxism is for ants."

Healthy farming and ranching communities have this duality - they are generally conservative, but neighbors help neighbors and expect nothing in return.  This is the culture of stockmanship.

This week, for some reason, has offered many examples of stockmanship for me - both in terms of skills and culture.  On Monday, I recieved a call at 4:30 a.m. that I had cows on the road in Auburn.  I threw some clothes on and worked with a neighbor to get these cows back into our pasture - only to discover that they weren't ours!  We figured out who the owner was and made arrangements to return the cows (the owner didn't have a trailer, so I offered to haul them back for her).  On Tuesday, we sheared and vaccinated lambs with the help of a number of kids - they were learning stockmanship (both the skills and the culture).  My friend Bill Boundy, who has cows on the Elster Ranch where we have sheep, offered to help, too.  Bill is a cowman, but the culture of stockmanship is such that he was gracious enough to offer to help.

Some folks who have livestock, however, don't understand the culture of stockmanship.  Today, I was finally able to find the time to get the two stray cows back to their owner.  Had these cows belonged to me, I would have helped bring them into the corrals, sort them off from the other cows and load them in the trailer.  Bill Boundy would have done the same.  This is partly out of self-interest - I'd want to make sure that I got my own cows back.  More importantly, it's because it's the right thing to do.  If someone got my cows off the road (which would have been a huge liability issue), pastured them for two days, and offered to haul them back to my property, I like to think that I'd have helped.  The folks who owned these cows, however, were not part of this culture.

Raising livestock is hard way to make a living - it's physically, mentally and financially demanding.  The culture of stockmanship is one of the intangible benefits of my livelihood - I relish the chances to learn from folks like Bill Boundy.  As I approach my extremely mid-40s, I realize that there are several generations coming after me that can benefit from my experience and perspective.  My apprenticeship program is part of how I share these things, but the community of stockmanship demands less formal sharing, too.  Perhaps I should have found a way to tell the folks whose cows I returned what's expected of them in a community of stockmen.


  1. After further consideration and discussion, I think that there are at least two additional elements to successful stockmanship - flexibility and attention to detail. Every year is different, every animal is different, every pasture is different. Success requires us to be flexible enough to recognize and adjust for these differences.

    Attention to detail has not generally been my strong suit. I've had to learn - paying attention to little details takes care of the big issues. A gimpy lamb, treated immediately, reduces the likelihood of footrot in the entire flock.


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