Fluid Flock Work Stirs My Soul

Yesterday morning was one of those times I really wished I had a cameraman along.

I took Cajun out with me in the morning to gather the flock as we wanted to check the girls over and give a second worming dose to a dozen ewes we had wormed earlier. 

The ewes were still bedded down so the whole group was together. Picture a large, fat, oval bowl shape ringed by trees and full of sheep. We have a seat on the front door side and a view from the upper row.

The dog goes wide to the right, well outside of the trees. The sheep are to his left and yet he glances over his right shoulder while running, looking for more sheep; a habit born of numerous miles searching for sheep in these hills. He comes around the far side and turns in directly opposite to slip through a back doorway in the trees, and enters the bowl. Stirred up by his movement, sheep begin to flow out the front door and head left. LGD Lady is dancing back and forth at the front of the flock, half leading, half following them to the left. Cajun is coming around on the right wing. Reaching the edge and spotting me in the distance lifting my arm, he turns back. He curves through the bowl, disappears  in the trees, passes through a side door and reappears on the outside to meet the leaders on the left. This turns them back into the flock. The outside edge of sheep are passing those on the inside, beginning to mill in a right hand circle. The whole flock has now exited the bowl and are milling in front. After turning the left wing Cajun heads back to the right, this time staying tight behind the sheep, pushing them away from the perimeter of trees.

Right about then Lady walks out from the left side and pulls ahead of  the ewes, she comes uphill toward me. The ewes willingly begin to follow this new leader, just as Cajun is coming up on the right wing again. A V of sheep begin pouring toward me and we are off.

This was less than five minutes of work with stock and guardian dog unknowingly assisting each other to move the flock. It was like watching a coliseum empty of a crowd of sheep. It was one of the most fluid pieces of ranch work I've seen yet. I dearly wish I could show you a video of it but we'll have to settle with this meager description in writing.

When I watch moments like this unfold something in my soul is stirred up and polished a bit. I had to share it.

LGD Growing Up

Zeus is growing up.

Up until early winter he was out with the main pack and the main flock and was doing pretty good. Then we noticed signs that some dog was harassing one of the smaller ewe lambs. Our first suspect was Zeus. I moved him home and put him with Willow and her sheep. He promptly returned to the main flock. I brought him back, he returned on his own. I put a drag object on him but he figured out how to take that with him. I left the drag object on him and let him stay with the main flock.

Then he changed his mind. He came back to Willow’s flock. I tried taking him back to the pasture but he came back. Next I moved him into the barn paddock with the animals there and he has stayed put there since. 

I haven’t tried taking him back out to the main pack again but I don’t think I will until he grows up more. He isn’t harassing anything where he is and he seems content to be there. He’s with sheep plus cows and horses which is good exposure for him. Besides, I’m suspicious that one or more of the adult dogs with the flock, were putting the heat to Zeus, maybe in response to his harassment of the sheep. Maybe in response to his growing up some.

I like this fellow quite a bit and I’m torn about selling him. If it turns out that I can’t integrate him into the main pack, he might make a great working partner for Willow.

Winter Greens

By this time in the winter it starts to feel a bit like we’re facing an uphill battle. It feels that way in particular this year because our fist snow arrived back in October and never left. We’ve been through at least 85 days with snow on the ground and we’re looking ahead at about another 60.

Physically every step is just more burdensome in the snow. Mentally the vast expanse of snow buried land and extremely few visitors shrinks ones world to a hermit like state.

Not knowing how the night’s hand has reworked the snow, each morning is a fresh trek into feeding sheep. Aside from the actual work of rolling a few bales of feed everyday, there might be half an hour of shoveling so that we can get to the sheep. Sometimes we abandon the Ranger and go on foot.

The sheep continue to do what sheep seem to do most of at this time of the year - eat and sleep. When they lie down to chew cud I doubt they contemplate that it’s been 85 days of snow beneath their bellies.

Tonight, it was no surprise that as I flipped through photos to generate writing ideas, the ones ripe with green color lured me in. They remind me that I will smell dirt and see green grass again soon.

Right now this bench is up to its seat in snow.

On our next warm day, I think I’ll sit there for a spell.

While I’m sitting perhaps I’ll un-wrinkle my thoughts about where conventional agriculture is going and how I can stay on my unconventional path.

I’ll hug my knees and ponder how it seems to me that I’m living a pretty ordinary life while recent emails from readers would suggest otherwise.

I’ll take a moment to anticipate the arrival of guests for our summer stock dog clinics and sheep camp. Guests who will invariably ask about the sheep, engage in working their dogs and feel a little bit of Nature’s glow while they’re here.

I’ll sit and pretend I hear grass growing.

Blown In

Just a quick post and a photo tonight.

We had more snow accompanied by strong winds over the weekend so we’re dealing with more snow issues. Just getting around is proving to be a struggle. I got the Ranger firmly stuck the other morning trying to get to the ewe lambs. I spent an extra half hour or better shoveling myself out and had to go the rest of the way on foot to start feeding.

The snow is a blessing though and the moisture in the spring will be well received. And despite the resulting complications that come with it, snow is quite beautiful. The blue of the sky against the hill of snow was far more breathtaking than this photo gives credit to.

A Side Step into a Deep Issue

I attended sheep producer meeting and farm food safety course last week.

I came home with a binder full of material, a pile of paper work to look forward to for years to come and several conflicting thoughts.

The loudest thought, the one I want to scream out is this: lawyers, lawsuits and litigation should not be in the same conversation as farming and feeding people. Has society, has farming, gotten that far off the mark? I realize I can use the program to my advantage as an accreditation of sorts. I get that the Farm Food Safety Program is here to protect me should you decide to sue me someday. Yet I can’t deny that this outcome feels so dreadfully soulless to me.

This personal outburst isn’t to condemn farm food safety programs because there is no point in that. This outburst is a gushing of frustration about the now terribly complicated system of putting food on our tables.

It is my opinion that the only reason such programs as farm food safety have come to pass in the first place is because we’ve gotten so far off track in how we raise animals and how we treat people. I suspect we raise more animals in factories than we do in natural settings, and placing blame and suing the neighbour is second nature to so many people that young children understand what taking legal action means. We’ve coerced ourselves. We’ve removed the animal from nature and taken the human out of humanity. 

This whole program draws out the deeper reason, my in-the-belly reason, for ranching as I do. On the surface it’s because I enjoy being outdoors, living with dogs and raising sheep, but deep down it’s because I recognize any other farming path would render me soulless.

Yet programs like farm food safety are forcing a bit of my soul to take that path. It was mentioned in the workshop that eventually there will be so many regulations on the processor’s end (the butcher, the slaughter house, the feedlot) that he’s going to come down on the producer. This will force the processor to buy from the guy who is regulated, who has dotted all his i’s and crossed all his t’s twice but whose sheep have never felt the sun, rather than the producer he might actually favor because they raise good lambs naturally.

Today you can be in the agriculture industry and own more buildings than you do land. In fact you don’t need to own land at all. You would still be a farmer, a factory farmer but a farmer. And you’re animal raising practices would be touted equal to mine so long as we both fill out the necessary records required for farm food safety.

I feel so torn in two.  As a larger scale producer, how do I walk out and walk on from this?

Snow Tracks

More fresh snow fell overnight which made this travelers tracks pretty evident. The tracks are just outside the gate leading to the winter paddock. They head uphill, away from the gate and toward a dead stock tank. They are not large enough to be Oakley or the Anatolians. Lady doesn’t leave her flock and certainly wouldn’t be this far away. It’s highly unlikely the guardians with the rams and ewe lambs made their way here. That leaves Glory as a possibility or a wild canine was traveling about which is very likely as well.

It isn't at all unusual to come across canine tracks around here, but it does heighten my concern each time I do. It makes me very thankful for several guardian dogs.

This winter has been full of snow. Just when we get ourselves cleared out from one snowfall the next is on it’s way. What makes it highly challenging is the wind that often accompanies the incoming snow. Around the yard and any man made structures, from buildings to fences and gates, the snow piles up. We’ve had to borrow a tractor to get access to the ewe lambs and hay feed for the rams.

This third photo gives you an idea of why guardian dogs are able to roam during the winter months. Blessedly the sheep rarely think of doing the same.

This Manner of Using Stock Dogs

This morning was calm and considerably warmer. I knew I had at least one round bale to spread by pitchfork this morning because the ewes had it partially eaten so it wasn’t going to unroll for me. Having a dog along to keep ewes off and give me some elbow room to work would help.

With our cold winters and knowing how long I may be outside for in the mornings, I don’t often take a stock dog along during the morning routine unless it’s a nice day or I know I could really use a dog. This morning it happened to be both and Cajun was my pick.

When we arrive I don’t release Cajun for a gather which is what he is anticipating. Instead I just tell him to “hold’em”. He sets himself nearby and watches. He’s free to move as he chooses.

Cajun watching while Lady checks him out
I never set out to teach him this, but just started using him this way, showing him what I wanted and helping him figure it out by moving sheep away myself. We also only do this type of job the odd time during winter feeding. He still caught on to the job pretty quick.

Cajun moves over to push a sneaky ewe away
I don’t need the dog to send the ewes to the next county, and I don’t need the dog to gather sheep and bring them to me. I just need the ewes kept away from the feed until I’m done forking it around. It takes me a while to fork out one round bale (1200 plus pounds of hay). What is marvellous about using Cajun for this job is that I don’t have to continually remind him what he’s doing or calling him back from attempting to gather. I can work without constantly checking where the dog is. He gets that the job is to simply be there and thus keep sheep away. Not all my dogs grasp the concept of jobs like this and I find it rather remarkable that Cajun does. He is an ultimate ranch dog in that way.

I wish I could brag us up and say this is the way it always is with my stock dogs, but you’d see right through that. It isn’t always like this, but the days that it’s a gong show make days like this all the more sweet.  I also wish I could give you a sense of the peaceful accomplishment of the morning. Some days, as much as anything else, it’s a dogs presence, his company as I feed sheep on a winter prairie hillside, that matter to me.  I know stock dog trials are all the rage these days but this manner of using a stock dog is IT to me.


That title sounds like code for a private mission of sorts... and maybe it is in a way. I feel a bit like I'm on a mission to share this natural style of agriculture.

Dog Tale Ranch is now on Facebook. One more little cyberspace milestone. Setting up a page took a fraction of the time it took me to decide if I wanted the page in the first place. Now that it is there I’m happy it is, and the incoming support from friends and strangers is very encouraging.

You can find us at Dog Tale Ranch
What you'll find there is perhaps a few more photos and brief snippets of life on the ranch but the nuts and bolts will still be here on this blog.

While I’m announcing things:  Our stock dog events are roughly planned out for this upcoming year.

Sheep shearing starts us off and that will be in early April.

In late May we’ll be hosting a two day clinic with Dave and Trudy Viklund, which will be followed by an AHBA trial organized by a local dog club.

There’ll be a few fun days and a couple mini clinics or seminars.

In August we’ll host our annual four day sheep camp with Dave and Trudy again and this too will be either preceded of followed by a CKC trial (also being organized by a local dog club).

If I thought I could get enough Kelpies together I might consider a Kelpie event too but Kelpies are sparse in this area.

So it’s looking like another busy season of hosting and writing. I’m excited about the possibilities and the connections that I know will result.

Windy Gratitude

After the morning routine of chores I rest in the flocks shelter for a spell. 

The trees form a complete circle here, thinning out in only two spots. The flock chose this shelter and we followed their lead and brought old bales in for bedding.

The instant cessation of the wind when I come in here is soothing. I think the ewes made a good choice.

As I sat here I was attempting to drum up a sense of gratitude for wind. For reasons I haven’t figured out strong wind makes me nervous, yet without wind I may not appreciate stillness. I must know one to know the other.

Or without the wind, I may forget all the needed changes the wind brings forth. Or perhaps I would not understand the high value of prairie shelter like this and how wise the ewes are for seeking it out and making it their hang out. Are all sheep this savvy or is raising them in this manner building a flock with particular traits?... traits that can't be measured like weight of gain and carcass quality can. 

And thus, this mind muddling eventually leads me to reflect on how fulfilling it is to ranch and raise livestock in a manner that generates a deep admiration for all that is natural. Maybe I can learn to like the wind after all.

Working Kelpies - We'll Get There

We recently moved the ewe lambs to a different feeding area further out so I wanted to bring them to the water bowl, to remind them it was there. I figured being the slightly forgetful creatures they are and plowing through the new snow was deterring them from trying on their own. It was not a real long distance from feed to water but it wasn’t an obvious route.

All the stock dogs were milling about the yard but it was BJ and Jayde whom I let slip through the main gate with me. Jayde is the experienced Border Collie, BJ is the Kelpie youngster with only a hint of training on her. We began the walk out, and by half way we are in thigh deep snow. As I swim in the snow the dogs bound ahead of me.

Jayde has figured out where we’re going. BJ is following her. Briefly I think of making them come back but sometimes I am just too lazy to make things happen any particular way when the dogs and I are working together. I mean, I like to see what dogs do when we’re not always making them DO something of our liking.

Jayde’s body and mind slide into work mode. BJ knows something is up; she has seen the sheep too. The sheep are in front off to the right, probably 400 feet away. There is a fence line on our right with an open gate. The dogs find the open gate no problem. They race ahead to the sheep. I’m still thigh deep in snow, pushing harder to catch up now.

Jayde automatically goes around and begins to work sheep. BJ makes a mess of things as she sorts out what she should do. This sets the group to milling in a counter clockwise direction. She hasn’t worked a large group before and she hasn’t worked with Jayde before and I’m not right there to make anything else happen. Some where in there she pauses and looks for me. I’m still in no position to influence her but I encourage her with a basic get around command. For a few moments she gets it and she works the back and sides.

The ewe lambs are still milling. Then the right side of the flock straightens out, and a few ewe lambs peel off and find the trail in the snow. Being on a path they willingly follow it. We’re on our way. Jayde is methodically working her sheep, just bringing them to me. BJ is everywhere, even occasionally pushing into the midst of the flock. The snow is deep on either side of the trail and acts just like a fence, no animal will cross it unless pushed. This is keeping the dogs in tight to the sheep, instead of out wider. Once the ewe lambs are around the bend by the slough they surge forward, now knowing where they are going. I cut in between to get BJ to stop because I know she’ll want to head after them. She’s a bit wide eyed from her adventure and it takes me a couple minutes to convince her to stay still long enough to put a leash on her. I begin to laugh. 

I have no idea if BJ learned much about the proper way to work sheep. But I also have no doubt that this little dog will sort a lot of things out on her own. I also have a new confidence in me and my dogs. We’ll get where we’re going eventually, even if only because we try crazy stuff.

Not Cut Out For Guardian Duty

Who’s been here?

I’ve come to the realization that Atticus isn’t going to be a great sheep guardian. He’s too harsh with the sheep, harming not just lambs but smaller ewes as well.

When I brought Atticus up to the yard he showed no shyness about the new situation and settled right in. Despite never being around the yard before, he went up the deck stairs and investigated the dog yard. He took over one of the Kelpie kennels and his favorite post is on the top step of the deck. He sticks his head in the door as we come and go from the house. This pup wants to be around the yard, around people. I’m sure he feels a bit like he’s moved up in the world.

Atticus is available and ready for new home. He will be a great general yard or acreage /  guardian dog. He’s still very guardian like, he just can’t be in a paddock with sheep without constant supervision. He likes people, he’s huge, he’s gorgeous, he’s alert and he is pretty mellow to be around. He was raised with dogs. He hasn’t been around cats or kids.

My emotions have been everywhere with this dog, from hopeful, to frustrated, to lost, to failure and back to hopeful. Since I pulled him off duty I’ve been able to see what I couldn’t see before because I was too focused on trying to make him work out as a guardian. His heart was never with the sheep. He wasn’t attracted to them except as playthings. He was always the pup at the gate... waiting. Hopefully soon he’ll have a new home and his waiting days will be over.

Feeding Guardian Dogs

A lady wrote to me asking for advice about how to feed her guardian dog.
It may sound like a simple query with an obvious answer but there are a few issues with feeding guardian dogs and this person is not the first to ask the question.

I'll share my answer in the telling of how we feed our dogs. Our dogs are usually fed from a bowl or sometimes the food is dumped right on the ground. If I have a fast eater (Oakley), I'll dump the food out as it slows them down. The slow eaters (Glory and Lady) can eat from the bowl because it speeds them up. The dogs are fed twice a day so are fed what they need in one meal (no excess food is left out). They are fed in the vicinity of the flock, wherever they happen to be, not in one specific location.

If sheep approach while dogs are eating, all but one dog will guard their food, not allowing sheep to get near it. This is okay behavior with me. Willow is the one dog who will share her meal with the sheep. (In case you're not aware - dog kibble is highly sought after by sheep because of the grain content).

Some people use self feeders and put the feeder up on a platform so the sheep can not access it but the dog can. When we had fewer dogs we tried dog feeders but had more issues feeding that way, including food always being present and attracting unwanted guests, sheep getting into the feeder and guard dogs sticking around to guard the stash.

Feeding several dogs close to one another has never been a problem for us. We stick around while the dogs are eating and for the most part everyone acts respectful. If a dog tries to steal from another and the second is willing to tell the encroaching dog off, good, we let them. If a dog tries to tell us off when we approach, not good, we discourage that behavior. When we offer raw meaty bones to the dogs, each dog will quickly disappear with their treat, moving away from all of the others.

Some of our dogs (Lady is one) are very particular and something as small as changing the type of bowl they are fed from can prevent them from eating from that bowl the first time or two. They can eat from any dogs bowl, that doesn't matter, but going from say a rubber bowl to a metal one will disturb them. Or they'll refuse to drink out of, say, an ice cream pail, because they don't usually drink out of pails. 

Some of them are nervous about eating from our hand, most will not accept a dog treat like a Milk Bone (Oakley is the exception, he will accept anything).  Feeding raw meat helps encourage hand feeding. Feeding a raw diet also discourages the sheep from stealing food.

So that's how it goes. Sometimes it feels like we spend more time feeding dogs than sheep!


I’m busy re-organizing.

I’m doing an overhaul on the website and the blog. They seem to be two seperate pieces right now and I’d like them to be connected or unified a bit more. In doing that I began thinking that the Insightfully Canine blog I recently started should be incorporated as part of the package as well. Plus, there’s the idea of a Facebook page for Dog Tale Ranch.

It’s been a lot of jotting notes, finding this and fixing that, designing here and linking there, and I’m in the feeling frazzled stage.

I’ve asked myself a hundred times, why am I doing it? I think it comes down to this: 

a) As I watch the sheep industry covertly changing to factory farming I feel more compelled to share my experiences with natural farming. We need to maintain the connection between land and livestock, not remove them from one another. 

b) There is a beautiful untold world of working dogs playing out on farms and ranches across the planet, including here at Dog Tale Ranch. I want to share that world in more ways and with more people.

These are valid reasons to me so I’ll plug away and in short order, hopefully have some real progress to share.  

New Ride

The wind blew through the night and into the morning and we figured the trail out to pasture would be blown in with snow. So we tried taking a different set of wheels to get out to the sheep.

The dogs are my ‘thing’, this is Allen’s. I’m sure he would live on it if he could.

Complete with food for dogs and pitchfork for feeding sheep.

In case you’re wondering, we rode side saddle. That is, standing on the running boards, mountain sledding style. That way the pitchfork was not an issue.

All done out here.

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