Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Conversations on Stockmanship

I had occasion one morning several weeks ago to drop by Jim and Steph Barrie’s place in Thermalands (just northeast of Lincoln).  Mutual friends from southeastern Oregon who winter their cattle with Jim and Steph had left some “Shepherd’s Scarf” kits when they dropped off bulls the week before, and I finally had time to pick them up (I’ll be selling them at our farmers’ market).  I’ve known Jim since his days as the county trapper, and our paths have crossed now and again.  After retiring from the county, Jim has devoted his time to managing the family ranch, and to training horses and dogs.

After the typical rancher complaints about the weather and the challenges of the livestock business, our conversation turned to dogs, horses and people we’d known.  I related that one of things I like most about working dogs is the challenge of communication with another species – of conveying clear direction to my dogs and listening to what they’re trying to tell me.  In response, Jim told me a great story that illustrates this point much better than I ever have.

A number of years ago, Jim was training a cow dog for another rancher.  She’d have Jim come when she wasn’t around and train her dog on her cows in a large field.  Jim said that one particular horned cow would always challenge the dog at some point – and the dog would try to leave the cow and work the rest of the herd.  Jim (as I have done) would always force the dog back onto the recalcitrant cow, which the dog obviously didn’t like.  After one such training session, Jim asked his dad about it.  “My dad said, ‘That dog’s trying to tell you something,” Jim told me.  “’Next time you work him, just let him be and see what he does.’”

The next time they worked the cows, Jim tried his dad’s advice. “That cow turned,” Jim said, “and I just stayed quiet.  The dog pushed the rest of the cows up the fenceline to a big willow.  He got them settled in under the tree and then went back – all on his own – and took on the horned cow.  He nipped her heals all the way up the field until she joined the rest of the herd, and I stayed quiet the whole time.”

When Jim got home, he told his dad what had happened.  “My dad said, ‘The dog was telling you that he was worried that the rest of the cows would get away if he dealt with the ornery cow like you wanted him to.  He figured he needed to get the rest of the cows settled before he could deal with her.’” As Jim said, the dog reasoned it out.

I pass this story because I think it’s an important lesson for me (and perhaps for others) as a stockman who has realized that I’ll always be learning.  It’s also important on several other levels, however.  First, it illustrates a way of looking at working with animals that I think is important.  To me, it suggests that the listening part of communicating with another species (and probably with our own species) involves using more than our ears – it requires us to use our eyes, our brains and our intuition.  It implies that we need to have a relationship of trust with our animal partners (in my case, with dogs and horses or mules) that gives us the confidence to try things even if we’re afraid they might not work.

Like me, Jim has considered offering internships as a way to pass along his experience and knowledge to a new generation of stockmen (and women).  We both lament the changes in our community that make it more difficult for a young person to get hands-on, real-world experience in working with livestock – most kids don’t grow up on a ranch anymore.  The changes in our community give us less time to work together, too – stockmanship skills, I think, are learned by working together – by sharing stories and approaches to our work, and (most importantly) by sharing actual work.  Modern life makes us think that we’re too busy to spend an hour with a friend in the midst of a hectic work day swapping stories.  I’ve written previously about the value in slowing down so that the work will go faster – this visit was a reminder that slowing down helps me learn important lessons, too.  Thanks, Jim!

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