If you've read my blog in the past, you'll know that I frequently write about my experiences learning to use border collies to help me manage my sheep. As my own skills and confidence have improved, so have the skills and confidence of my dogs. Together, we can generally handle any situation involving the sheep - from moving up the county road to loading the trailer to sorting off and catching a sick animal. While I have the good fortune to have the chance to work my dogs in my new job as the herdsman at the Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center, the cows (and the environment) are very different - for me and my dogs.
When I took this new job, I sought the advice of friends who have more experience working cattle with dogs than I have. All of the advice was useful - and all of it was advice I would not have understood when I started working dogs. Experience is an excellent teacher. Several years ago, I had used Mo to help move cows that we were custom grazing for other people. His work was passable, but he was clearly more comfortable with sheep (as was I).
Yesterday, we gathered cow-calf pairs and bulls off of a hilly pasture at SFREC. I worked Mo from horseback, which was new for both of us. As we crested the main hill, we easily pushed a group of 12 pairs off the ridge towards the gate we were planning to go through. One of the other staff members radioed that there were a couple of cows who refused to leave a supplement tub about halfway down the hill. She was on an ATV, and the hillside was too steep for her. I worked my way down until I could see the cows, and sent Mo on a "come bye" flank (to the left). He got into position in front of the stubborn cows and got them headed the right direction.
I turned my horse just in time to see the 12 pair we'd gathered originally galloping back towards us! I urged Mo to get to their heads while I worked my way down the steep hill. Mo stopped them, and together we got them turned back around and headed up the road towards the gate. On several occasions, a stubborn cow decided she'd rather fight Mo than head to fresh feed - and Mo stood his ground! This gave me enough time to get into position to help turn the cow and keep them lined out.
The gate in this particular field is in a difficult spot - rather than being on an inside corner, it's adjacent to an outside break in the fence (which means the cows don't naturally see it). Most of the pairs went through, but one calf (there's always one, it seems) missed the gate entirely and ran up the inside of the fence to keep up with her. I sent Mo on an "away" flank - which he spaced perfectly, and he stopped the calf. Again, this gave me enough time to ride over and help him turn the calf and walk him back to the gate.
Once we got a count on the cows, we realized we were 3 short. Anna (the other staff member) and I made another ride through the field without finding them. I decided that Mo and I would check an adjacent pasture later that afternoon.
The morning's work obviously boosted Mo's confidence with working cattle - I could see him getting more confident as we worked. Mama cows can be among the most difficult cattle to herd with dogs - their maternal instincts tell them that the dog is a threat. It also reinforced some of the advice I'd received from my friends. Mo started to realize that I could help him, which boosted his confidence even further. He's generally a very gentle dog with sheep; he was appropriately aggressive with the cows.
That afternoon, we drove out to the adjacent pasture to look for the missing pairs. The field is long and skinny (it runs on both sides of an irrigation ditch), and it's brushy in some areas. Mo and I walked along the ditch bank, and as we reached the far end of the pasture, Mo spotted the cows (I've learned to watch my dogs when searching for livestock - they almost always see them before I do) . I told Mo to stay put and walked ahead to open the gate. Walking back, I sent Mo up into the brush to push two cows and three calves towards the gate. The third cow was below the ditch, so I recalled Mo and sent him down to collect her. All three pairs walked through the gate and up onto the road in the first pasture.
Like the big group, these six animals missed the difficult gate. I've found that smaller groups of range livestock (cows and sheep) are usually more difficult to control than larger groups - they are more nervous when they are in smaller groups. After missing the gate the first time, they started running up the hill. Mo did a beautiful outrun - he didn't make contact with the cows until he was in position to stop them and turn them back. After several more passes by the gate, they walked through and lined out towards their new pasture.
Mo's evolution from sheep dog to stock dog is a long term project (as is my own evolution from shepherd to stockman). Mo's half-brother Ernie will take even more work. I realized while working Mo on the cows that solid flanks and controlled outruns are critical - and Ernie's not quite there yet. I also realized, however, that there's no substitute for actual work - we only make progress when things are in motion. In that respect, working stock dogs is like training horses. As a novice, my instinct was to shut things down when they started going wrong. I've done the same thing with horses - stopping might be safer, but not much is learned (by horse OR rider). Looking back, I realize that my decision to use Ernie every day not only improved his abilities and confidence; it improved mine as well. I intend to use the same approach it getting my dogs to work with cattle. I'll keep you posted!