Sunday, February 25, 2018

Anyone can be a Cowboy - Right?!

I live in a community where it's still kinda cool to dress like a cowboy (or a cowgirl).  Heck - even some sheepherders I know dress like cowboys. And some of us even have real manure on our cowboy boots! But when it comes to the actual work that real cowboys (and cowgirls - and even sheepherders) do, I've found that the clothes don't make the man (or woman). To me, it seems that not everyone has the skills necessary to herd livestock well.

I was reminded of this last week when I got a call from a neighbor asking if I knew who had cows in on a property just west of Auburn. The cows (heifers, actually) were out and were headed toward a major Auburn road. I knew who they belonged to, so I called the owner and told him I was available to help if he needed me. About 20 minutes later, he called and asked me to help - having had experience with my own livestock being out, I knew he was stressed about the situation. I also knew (because he told me) that the well-meaning neighbors who offered to help get the heifers back into their pasture were not actually helpful.

We were able to turn the heifers away from the road and walk them back down the irrigation canal towards their field. Once they realized we were going to "let" them go where we wanted them to go (as opposed to forcing them), they calmed down and walked quietly - until a well-meaning neighbor came out into the road and waved his arms to get them to turn (even though they were going where we wanted them to go). Arm-waving - and whooping and hollering - seems to be the extent of most aspiring cowboys' skill set. Stockmen (and women) - like my friend - on the other hand, understand the importance of releasing pressure on animals when they are doing the right thing. Reading livestock behavior - understanding what helps calm a cow or a ewe - is a crucial element of stockmanship. Working quietly, which helps reduce stress on the animals, is another important skill.

With the neighbor's "help," the heifers turned down another driveway (which wasn't where we were headed). We slowed the cattle down, and I held them in a corner of the fence while my friend cut a fence about 50 yards from the corner. Once he made an opening, I eased them along the fence line towards the opening. At this point, both of us were about 50 yards away from the heifers. They came to the opening and were slightly confused about why there was now a gate in what had been solid fence. Rather than force them through the gap, we gave them time to look around and realize that they wanted to be back in their pasture. One by one, they walked calmly through the opening.

Even some ranchers don't subscribe to the low-stress stockmanship techniques I've described - there are plenty of real cowboys (and sheepherders) who also whoop and holler. And I'll admit, I don't always get the technique right - I learn something every time I work livestock. To the uninitiated, low-stress stock handling seems slow, I'm sure - after all, neither one of us ran while we were putting the heifers back (nor did the heifers). Many folks wouldn't realize that we had control of the cattle from 50 or even 75 yards away - simply by moving into their flight zone (to get them to move) and then moving back out (to reward them for moving calmly in the desired direction), we were able to put them where they needed to go. In many ways, the job went quickly because we worked slowly and deliberately. I don't know that either one of us would consider ourselves cowboys, but I think we both aspire to be good stockmen.

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