One Farmer’s Almanac
portraits by Michael Wilson
Working dogs are a marvel. Bo and I have been sorting and moving livestock this past month. Bo and I are getting to know each other, and it has been a pleasure to do so. Working as a team is an imperfect process, and he tests his handler regularly. But he is smart and eager to learn, and responds readily to both positive and negative reinforcement.
The other day we sorted yearling lambs, destined for the market, from ewes who are unexpectedly having babies. Bo and I walked together to the flock in the field and were able to surgically leave behind mothers with newborns while taking the rest to the sorting pens. Once in the sorting pens, Bo understood how to push the flock forward. Some dogs are good in the field but not in the sorting pens. Some are good in the sorting pens, but don’t have the discipline to stay at the rear of a flock in a laneway to drive it forward. Bo does all three, better than any of our previous dogs.
The Border Collie is one of the smartest canine breeds, as its genetics are closest to the wolf, from whom domesticated dogs descend. A highly skilled handler of Border Collies demonstrates absolute control, typically through whistles that can be heard at far distances. Such a master can induce a dog to dance a ballet, and it is beautiful to behold. But on our farm, we resort to a few basic voice commands, which suffices but isn’t always pretty.
Having a dog that is good with sheep is one thing, but having one that works cattle as well is another. Because of the difference in size of beast, most dogs refuse to deal with cattle. Bo is willing, which greatly increases his value to us.
The other day, we were moving steers from a far paddock to the barn to sort several out to be harvested. Once we had done the sorting, the remaining animals were in a holding lot, and they weren’t finding the open gate by which to return to the laneway. They were feeling frisky and began running around the lot. So I sent Bo to collect them, hoping for the best but not thinking that would really be successful, because a herd of charging bovines is hard to influence. But intrepid Bo swung around to the front of the lead steer who was on the move. He opposed the steer, then gave some ground, slowing the group. The steer charged; Bo gave more ground, slowing the group further. The steer charged a third time, and in response, Bo leaped in the air toward the steer’s nose with canines snapping! That lead steer was shocked. He and the herd following came to an abrupt stop, reversed direction, and willingly moved toward the open gate.
It was amazing to witness a 70-pound dog reverse the momentum of 40,000 pounds of bovines. It takes unusual courage to confront thundering hooves, such as Bo demonstrated that afternoon.
But he is not our only working canine. We also have Maremma Sheepdogs (from the province of Maremma in Italy), who protect our sheep and laying hens from coyotes. Those dogs are Coquie, Kentucky, Max, and Abie. Because of them, we are able to enjoy the cacophony of coyote howls at night without worry.
Blessed be man’s best friend, without whom life would be less,
Drausin & Susan
Drausin has been the chief-cook and bottle washer at Grassroots Farm & Foods since 2008, when he chose to become a full-time grass farmer, leaving his job as a banker to do so. He and his wife, Susan, lease 200 acres at Red Stone Farm in Pike County, which has been in the John Wulsin family since 1968. In addition to grassfed meats, the farm offers prepared foods like chili and Bolognese sauce made by Susan’s Soulful Kitchen.