FOOT FARMING

by Dana MacKenzie

A while back Tony Rohne asked me to write a short article about “Foot Farming” in East Texas. It kinds goes along with the thoughts expressed on “real” dog work in the RDT rather than trial course work. This past winter I worked for Tony tending to his cows, calves and calving heifers, as well as taking care of my 30 head of sheep. The term “Foot Farming” probably applies to a great number of cattle producers and refers to those who either can’t afford to buy and keep up a horse or simply don’t know anything about one and have done all their work on foot all their lives.

I have a five year old Australian Shepherd, Clancy, and several pups which I attempt to train throughout the year. Clancy and one of these young dogs is always with me when there’s work to be done. Clancy does what I tell him to do and the pup takes his orders from Clancy. Later on, I’ll work the pup without Clancy and the pup will learn to mind me as well. Anyway, remembering that much of East Texas is meadows surrounded by almost impenetrable bogs, or pine thickets, some typical stock chores follow:

Every day pick up a bunch (say 40 to 50) cows, calves and a bull. Move them to a cover crop of some kind to graze for two hours or so, then put them back in their pasture. To do this, I take the four-wheeler and get fairly close to the stock (say 300 to 400 feet). In general, Aussies aren’t really long distance gatherers. I send the dogs and wait until the cows are bunched up, then move off in the lead with the dogs holding the cattle to me.

We move along at a slow to fast trot because once the dogs get everything moving, it’s easier not to stop and start again. The dogs usually have to fight some, as Brahma-cross cows can be rank, especially those with calves. My current pup, Elmo, is going to be a much stronger cow dog than Clancy so I jokingly say that Clancy tells Elmo which cow to bite and how hard. Clancy is the back-up man and brains!
We go check the heifers. If I find one close to calving, really springing, I’ll have the dogs bring the bunch to the house and corral (about a half mile), separate the heavy one out, put her in the dump pasture, then return the rest to their pasture and feed them. Any bovine can stomp you good when you put out feed, but the pups push them away from the feed troughs until I finish.

We check the dump pasture heifers, bringing any heifers that look a day or two away from calving (springing heavy and a taut bag) to the corral to be watched closely. We had some bad luck this winter having to pull six calves, losing three including a set of twins. The dogs push the remaining heifers out of the corral and back to their pasture.

A neighbor calls to tell us we have heifers out on the lane behind the Tale place. They broke through the fence onto the railroad tracks, walking on down to the lane. We find seven heifers and put them back in the pasture with their mothers, because it is the only way to get them back to their own pasture. The dogs have to work carefully moving them through a narrow yard opening into the pasture. The heifers pair up with their mothers. I lay the dogs down, well back from the herd on either side, and work the calves to the outside of the bunch myself, calling the dogs in when I get the heifers clear of the herd. The dogs shouldn’t bark while doing this chore so I walk behind the heifers and the dogs spread out behind me. They keep the calves from turning back. Even at this, we have several cows running at the dogs, then running back to the herd as we move away. We don’t lose any heifers, but it takes some fancy footwork on my and the dogs’ part and to keep them separated. We get them back in their pasture and fix the fence.

The bull breaks in with the heifers. It’s easier to take all the heifers back to his pasture, cutting him off at the gate. The dogs hold everything up to me for separating. We work the bull away from the fence and chase him back to his cows. We move the heifers away from the fence; then I fix the fence. Pups dig up a rat’s nest.

We move cows with embryo transplant calves at their side across the highway. I take Clancy because I can always control him. He must control the stock, but not pressure the cows too much and especially not bark. Barking would only cause the cows to be more agitated and likely to initiate a fight. I hold him pretty far off, only getting “up close and personal” when the cows make a break for it. Once we get going good, it’s not hard. They have been across the highway before and go easily with Clancy driving.

Each evening, I send Clancy to bring in the sheep. Ajua, my guard dog, knows which dogs are permitted to work her sheep and doesn’t interfere. If one of the pups escapes and goes after her sheep, she gets between him and her sheep. No damage is done to pup or sheep. Anyway, Clancy goes out of sight over a hill, searching. If he’s not back in ten minutes with the sheep, it means he either has sheep on two sides of a fence, mixed in with the heifers, or has a ewe with newborn lambs. In other words, he needs help and I walk down to help him out. I never send “in training” pups out of sight.

We worm, vaccinate and load sheep through a chute. The dogs pack and hold the chute unless the leaders balk, then I hold the rear and the dogs punch the leaders on down the chute from the outside. They love this chore. They will load a trailer in this manner or in the open. We never tried trailer loading in the open with calves.

Tony wants to sell some culls and work about 10 calves. The dogs hold the cow herd up to the gate and I cut out what we want. It’s a chore as one cow is determined to eat all three of us for lunch. We head for the house a half mile away across the creek. I leave two extra cows in the group thinking more will be easier to move. Big mistake! These cows lead us on a not-so-merry chase through all the dense underbrush and swampy spots in the pasture. The cows run at me and the dogs time and time again. They keep brushing up as it’s getting hot. We keep at it until the pups are “walking on their tongues”. I take over and watch the cows, giving my dogs a break. They head for water, but are back in less than five minutes and we’re back at it. The brush is so thick you can’t see a cow until you fall over her. It’s dangerous for the dogs. Elmo has a tooth kicked out and his chest is bloody. Finally, we make it to the corral. I look at these two buddies, touch their heads and think how lucky I am to have these two good helpers and how fortunate I am to be able to live this kind of life and feel this satisfaction at a hard job well done.

Well, there you have it in a nutshell. There are daily tasks too numerous to mention and absolutely no way could I do any of this without my dogs — couldn’t even start. It’s all a combined effort. If a pup gets in trouble, I’m there to help. If I need help, they are there to help me. Things aren’t always stylish and slow. There’s rarely a wide sweeping silent outrun, but the job gets done. I do trial Clancy in Aussie trials. He’s not a top notch trial dog, but usually places in the top six. I will trial Elmo eventually and think he’ll make a trial dog. But these things are secondary. If neither dog ever hits a lick on the trial field, it’s O.K.. They both have what really counts with me and I’m content with them and “foot farming”.

this article was first published in The Ranch Dog Trainer Magazine August/September 1992.