Labor shortage on Texas livestock farms? Some ranchers are turning to dogs for help

Herding dogs like border collies can be extremely useful day-to-day to help farmers work with sheep or cattle.

By Sarah AschMarch 28, 2024 1:57 pm, ,

Agriculture remains one of Texas’ most robust and profitable industries. In 2022, Texas farms sold more than $32 billion in agricultural products – and nearly half of that came from cattle farms.

Many Texans hold jobs in the agriculture sector. But there is one job on a few cattle farms – and many sheep farms – that is increasingly being done by dogs: herding.

Kay Stephens, a veterinarian and dog trainer who owns a small sheep farm outside of College Station, has several border collies who help her with the 40 head of sheep she has on her property this season.

One dog, Jade, is a 5-year-old border collie, the breed of dog preferred by most sheep farmers.

Jade is able to respond to spoken commands and whistles to come up behind the flock in the pasture and put just enough pressure on the sheep to move them toward Stephens in the field.

“You can see she stays nice and pretty far off of them so she doesn’t upset them,” Stephens said. “And the sheep never really get off of a walk. So again, the key thing here is we’re not stressing or upsetting the sheep.”

Renee Dominguez / Texas Standard

Jade, a herding border collie, gathers all the sheep inside a fenced inclosure on Kay Stephens’ farm near College Station. Stephens trains border collies to herd sheep in order to move animals more efficiently and improve animal welfare.

Sheep do not make up a very large percentage of Texas livestock operations, but those who raise them are increasingly turning to border collies to help them manage their day-to-day farm tasks.

While the use of dogs is trending up, it’s nothing brand-new, of course: Humans have put dogs to work on farms around the world for thousands of years. But now, as farm labor shortages have persisted in Texas, many sheep farmers are turning to dogs for help.

“I’ve helped probably 10 ranchers in the past two months actually getting into this, working livestock with dogs for the very reason that they can’t get help, they can’t get labor,” said Maci McGraw, the president of the Texas Sheep Dog Association. “They need somebody to go out in the farm truck with them and actually bring the cattle up to the bunks. You know, we’ve all gone to alarms or bells on our trucks, or anything like that, to get them to come up – the cattle to the feed bunks where we’re putting out food. So I think it’s really important, a role that they play.”

» COMING SOON: Texas Standard explores the Future of Work in Texas

It’s a role several people said dogs do better than humans anyway. Charly Kronberger, a Texas Sheep Dog Association board member, said that when it comes to herding, dogs can do the work of several people.

“If you’re moving a flock of 100 or several, if you get behind and you have to cover from one side to the other, and the dog can do that himself,” Kronberger said. “Whereas if it was people on foot, you’d have to have three or four people pushing, you know, scattered across the back end of the flock moving on. But a dog can do it all.”

Kronberger got into sheep farming in a roundabout way: She had border collies and wanted to put them to work. She started with sheep dog trials, which are competitions for herding dogs and their handlers, before she got her own sheep. Many of the sheep ranchers with herding dogs participate in trials, sometimes at rodeos or as standalone events.

Julius Shieh / KUT News

Dogs compete in sheepdog trials during the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo in February.

Johnny Greenwood, another Texas Sheep Dog Association board member, said the dogs really enjoy this type of work.

“They are working dogs, and they love to work, and they love to please. And when they’re doing the things that they love to do and that they’re bred to do, that’s what they were created for,” he said. “There’s nothing like it when you’re watching them. It’s almost like watching your kid take their first steps as they progress through life.”

At her farm outside College Station, Stephens says she uses dogs to bring sheep in from pasture. The dogs can also split specific sheeps off the group if those animals need vet care, like corralling lambs away from their mothers for vaccinations.

Julius Shieh / KUT News

Pepper, a competing dog, watches from the sidelines as other dogs compete in sheepdog trials during the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo.

Josh Koch has similar experiences – but with cows instead of sheep and Blue Lacys instead of border collies – working on a small cattle farm in Central Texas.

“We use the dogs mostly when the cattle are in the pens to push them from pen to pen,” he said. “And then come calving season, we individually tag each calf as it’s born, and we use the dogs to hold the mama cows in place while we tag and weigh and doctor on any calf.

“And then if we have a calf that’s born off in the woods somewhere, and the mama won’t bring her up to us, we use the dogs to back trail and find the calves so we can doctor them and do whatever we need to do with them and bring them up to the barns.”

McGraw says there’s another benefit to using dogs to help fill a labor shortage: They have very little impact on the environment.

“They actually help create a better situation for us, and talk about very little carbon footprint,” she said. “You’ve got a vet bill and a dog food bill, and that’s really all the input cost you have into a dog – and some praise.”

Greenwood says the companionship he feels with his dogs is also a huge draw for him.

“Every week I learn something from my own dogs – and I’ve been doing this for a while now – but it’s their intelligence,” he said. “They are smart, smart dogs, and sometimes it just amazes me. I look at some of them and think if they could talk, they would tell me everything that I’m doing wrong, because their natural ability is way beyond what we can think sometimes.”

Renee Dominguez / Texas Standard

Kay Stephens watches as one of her border collies, Sweep, gathers all the sheep and lambs inside a fenced inclosure on her farm near College Station.

Back outside of College Station, Stephens says maintaining her sheep farm has gotten harder over the years. The 40 head she has this season is a big decrease from her usual operation. She had to sell off a lot of animals last year at the height of the drought. And with weather being less predictable due to climate change, Stephens says she’s not sure how much longer her operation will be feasible.

But as long as she’s out there farming, her dogs will be there to help.

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