Thursday, October 31, 2013

The News from McCormack Ranch

November 1 - the day when we're supposed to start lambing here at McCormack Ranch - is quickly approaching.  With ewe vaccinations behind us, we're now working on setting up electro-net paddocks on the alfalfa and sorting the ewes into smaller lambing groups.  Not quite the calm before the storm!

Yesterday, we also hosted one of our customers on a ranch tour and picnic lunch.  The crew from the Fatted Calf in Napa joined us yesterday - and brought an amazing lunch to share!  I'm looking forward to working with them!

In the meantime, enjoy these photos!

Boise was pretty excited about the ranch tour with the crew from the Fatted Calf!

A beautiful day for checking out the Delta!
Mo enjoyed the Sacramento River.

Lambing paddocks ready for action.

The girls coming in for a morning drink.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ernie's Growing Up!

If you've read this blog at all in the last 6 months, you know that Ernie (our youngest working border collie) has been a handful.  At some point this summer, I decided that his sheep work was never going to improve if he didn't get regular work.  Rather than leave Ernie home when we had real work to do, I started using him.  In fits and starts, we made some progress - but I still relied on Mo and Taff (our older, proven dogs) to do things like load the trailer, move sheep up the county road, and (most recently) move range ewes from the corrals to their paddocks at my new job at McCormack Sheep and Grain in Rio Vista.

All of that is starting to change.  Last Friday, Ernie and I moved lambs from the Allender property in Auburn back to our corrals at Oak Hill Ranch (a walk of about half a mile).  He helped me sort several ewes out of this bunch, and then we walked them out of the corrals, across a field, and up Shanley Road to Amber Oaks Berry Farm.  This move involved lots of gates, several turns, and a need to keep the sheep out of Tim Boughton's vegetables at Amber Oaks.  Despite a few  minor hiccups (where Ernie reverted back to his old habit of trying to get to the heads of the sheep), he did wonderfully!  He still works too close much of the time, but he's really trying to pay attention to me - he's acknowledging that we're working together!  My friend Roger videotaped much of the move - hopefully we'll post some of it soon!

Today, I relied on Ernie to bring two groups of ewes out of the corrals and to move them back to their paddocks.  The first was a short move - maybe 150 yards.  The second was a one-mile walk up the road.  He passed with flying colors!  We still have a long way to go, but we're definitely making progress!  I wish I had better photos to post - but I still have to give Ernie my undivided attention when we're working.  Someday....

The end result of Ernie's work this afternoon - ewes back in their pasture!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Some Thoughts on Dogs - Observations from my first week at McCormack Sheep and Grain

While I'm still in the midst of making the transition from "shepherd in charge" at Flying Mule Farm to deputy livestock manager / director at McCormack Sheep and Grain, I've learned some interesting things about dogs in the last two weeks.  These thoughts are fairly random - please bear with me!

I've been using Taff (my 11-year-old border collie) and Ernie exclusively - Mo is on a brief vacation providing stud services.  Taff has slowed down significantly over the last year.  He's big for a border collie, and the years of physical work have started to take their toll.  His eyesight is diminished, as is his hearing (or so I thought - more on this below).  Ernie, as some of you know, loves to work - sometimes with me, sometimes for himself.  He's made big strides in his willingness to work as a partner with me, but we still have a long way to go.

On my second day at McCormack's, I helped Ellen Skillings (my friend and the livestock manager at the ranch), gather approximately 1500 ewes out of a 300+ acre field and bring them into the corrals for vaccinations.  As Ernie doesn't handle gathering particularly well, I left him back.  I brought Taff, and Ellen brought her top dog (Emer) and another younger dog who is very similar to Ernie.  We gathered about 1/3 of the ewes, and then Ellen left us to look for the rest of the sheep.  Taff and I moved the ewes toward the gate, picking up several hundred more as we went.  After about 10 minutes, we met up with Ellen and the rest of the flock.  The three dogs bunched the two groups and drove them towards and then through the gate onto the road to the corrals.  Taff was amazing!  Nothing wrong with his hearing - he took my commends from several hundred yards away!

This week, with Ellen gone, I've continued to work on getting the ewes vaccinated before laming begins next month.  This works involves bringing the sheep into the corrals, putting smaller groups into the crowding alley, and then putting the vaccinated ewes back on pasture (we sort those that are carrying twins off from the open ewes or those with singles - the twin-bearing ewes get more and better forage).  I have been using Taff in the mornings and to do long drives back to pasture.  Ernie gets to work in the corrals after lunch as well as on shorter drives back to pasture - including a complicated task that I'll describe in more detail.

Taff has been working fairly well in the corrals.  He gets a bit intimidated by stompy ewes, and he hates working rams (due to receiving a concussion from an aggressive ram several years ago).  That said, he's been responsive and has been especially good at driving sheep up the road.  Yesterday, he even cast himself wide around one of my ewes who was out of her pasture and brought her back through an open gate (a single sheep is very difficult for most dogs to work).

Ernie has shown his confidence in the corrals.  I can send him around a group of sheep in a pen, and he'll take my flank command without hesitation.  He quietly walks through the sheep along the fenceline until he's behind them, and he then holds his ground quite well.  One of the groups of ewes has to go back to a field that requires us to through the corner of a field that contains the remainder of the un-vaccinated ewes.  To avoid mixing the groups, Ernie and I have been pushing the un-vaccinated group up and over the hill so that they are out of sight from the gates.  Ernie has a hard time driving - he desperately wants to get to the heads of the sheep, but he's handled this task fairly well.  The first day, we walked, and he stayed with me the entire way.  Yesterday, I rode the ATV - a new experience for Ernie.  He handled it well - did some short flanks to bring stragglers into the main bunch.  However, as I shifted my attention to turning the ATV around after we'd driven them over the hill, he saw his chance to run to their heads (and ignore me).  Fortunately, I was able to call him off quickly and go back down the hill (leaving the sheep in place).  We then proceeded to bring two groups of ewes back into their two separate pastures.  With the first group, Ernie decided to work for himself for a brief moment.  I was able to convince him that I was still in the picture - and then he worked beautifully!  He stayed well off the bunch (these range ewes have significantly larger flight zones than our own sheep), but he maintained contact with the sheep and kept them controlled as they moved through the gates.

These experiences lead me to several observations about Ernie.  First, as I've written before, Ernie requires my constant focus and attention.  He can sense when my attention is diverted and will almost always take advantage of these lapses.  Second, Ernie is beginning to discover that there may be more work than he can get done if he acts like an idiot - unnecessary running will just wear him out!

Finally, some observations about guard dogs.  Last year, we traded dogs with McCormack Ranch.  They took Boise, a male akbash-cross that we had purchased as a puppy.  Boise is incredibly athletic, which makes him difficult to contain in our electro-net.  In exchange, we took Rosie (a daughter of Boise), who had taken to hanging out with bummer lambs at McCormack's.  Rosie quickly adjusted to staying with sheep in electro-net, and we found that we could trust her to stay with her sheep even when we were moving them from property to property.

We've now moved Rosie and Reno (our other male Anatolian dog) with our sheep to McCormack Ranch.  Reno went first, and we left him with one of our breeding groups.  However, when he saw us moving the McCormack ewes from the adjacent field last week, he decided to come along to see what was happening.  Rosie went this week and is so far staying with our sheep.

Our dogs have joined Boise and Annie at McCormack Ranch.  Unlike our system, where we want the dogs to stay in our smaller paddocks (mostly so they don't get on road or bother the neighbors), the dogs at McCormack's roam throughout the entire 3900 acres.  In many ways, the dogs in a system like this work because they've displaced coyotes as the large canine predator in this ecosystem - predators that view sheep as part of their "pack" (rather than their prey base).  It's been very interesting to observe their interactions with each other and with our border collies in this type of setting.

More observations to come....

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Ernie's Progress - October 1

I haven't posted an entry regarding Ernie's progress towards becoming a useful sheep dog for a number of weeks.  My lack of reporting has been due partly to my lack of time and, frankly, due to Ernie's lack of progress.  While he's shown some signs of improvement, we also seem to move backwards sometimes (not unusual in the training process, as I'm learning).  When we suffer these set-backs, I try to go back to the fundamental building blocks of Ernie's training - to rebuild the foundation that our more complicated work is based upon.

I continue to use Ernie on a regular basis for tasks like moving the ewes or the feeder lambs from pasture to pasture or onto other properties.  Over the last several weeks, Ernie has regressed - he's gone back to deciding that it's more fun to work for himself (rather than with me).  This manifests itself in his refusal to acknowledge that I'm even in the picture when we're moving sheep - he constantly tries to get to the head of the flock and works much too close to the sheep.  In some ways, he seems like he's afraid that I'll make him quit working - which he can avoid by ignoring me.  At the risk of sounding overly technical, he's been a real knucklehead!

This morning, we moved approximately 175 ewes out of a 5-acre field, across a road, and into a new paddock.  The ideal approach included gathering the ewes, bringing them calmly to an opening in the electro-net fencing, walking them across the road and then through another opening into the new paddock.  The old paddock was on a hillside - and when we entered, the sheep were out of site.  Rosie the guard dog did her best to play with Ernie, but he was all business.  Even though he wanted to take off on his own, I successfully kept him at my side until we crested the hill and could see the sheep spread out below us.  I asked him to lie down on my left side and then sent him on a "come-bye" or clockwise flank.  While he was much too fast and a bit too close to the sheep, he did bend himself out and come around the entire flock - bringing them to my feet.  Once he had them gathered, he also took a lie down command and allowed me to call him off.  We walked together do the point in the fence that I planned to open to let the ewes out - and the sheep stayed put.  Once the fence was open, I asked him to lie down again, and then sent him on an "away" flank.  He bent himself out wide and came behind the sheep nicely.  The sheep flowed towards the opening and across the road - and Ernie took my lie down command and let them come.  We approached the opening into the new paddock and Ernie desperately wanted to come to their heads again; however, he took my lie down and subsequent "away" flank - and brought the whole flock through the gap.  As I was closing the fence I lost site of Ernie over the hill in the new paddock, but I could tell by the behavior of the sheep that he was trying to bring them back to me.  A few "that'll do" commands (which we use to call off our dogs), and Ernie trotted back to me - quite proud of himself.

A horse-farmer friend of mine, John Erskine, told me that working horses safely and successfully requires the teamster to be totally calm and totally present.  I think the same applies to training and working stock dogs.  I realized that during the recent occasions in which Ernie was a knucklehead my focus was divided - I was thinking about the next task rather than being totally present in the task at hand.  Today, I tried to focus myself on the work we were doing - and it really showed in Ernie's efforts.  A good lesson for both of us!