Randy Glover cut his labor costs by more than half soon after he went to manage a large ranch near Fort Davis, TX, 30 years ago. He credits good stock dogs.

The ranch's tradition had been to hire up to 10 day-laborers at working time and spend up to two weeks gathering and working cattle. Before long, Glover was hiring five day-laborers and using three stock dogs, and finishing the job in three days.

Eight years ago, Glover's stock dogs got him a new job managing the Caldwell Ranch, also near Fort Davis.

“The lady I work for now told me she wanted to hire my dogs and I just got to come along,” he says wryly.

Melvin Cyphers, who ranches near Perkins, OK, just seven years ago used five horses and riders when it came time to gather cattle. Now he uses two dogs. It was a straight trade.

“One person can pretty much bring the cows in by himself,” Cyphers says. “I really don't have to have cowboys anymore to get cows up.”

These stories and others beg a direct comparison between hired labor and stock-dog labor — that is to say with gathering or herding stock dogs such as border collies. Chasing stock dogs, such as heelers, are excluded from this conversation because frankly, they can't do the work.

But these gathering stock dogs, the ones that instinctively want to bring stock to you, are — begging the dogs' pardon — the cat's meow. They can bring cattle out of brush or hills; make them behave as a herd; and teach even the orneriest cows to fall in behind a horse and rider, a four-wheeler or a pickup, like mice behind the pied piper.

Admittedly, a dog can't dig postholes or give vaccinations, but the good ones always want to work and, as Glover says, “I've never had a dog get drunk and not show up for work the next day.”

“These gathering dogs really make cattle gentle,” says Gary Ericsson. “The cattle come to the horse and rider because that's the place the dogs aren't.”

Ericsson, a lifelong rancher who now lives in Oklahoma, created his own breed of stock dogs and even his own registry for his breed — the Hangin' Tree Cowdog.

“One dog will replace two or three people out there working cattle,” Ericsson says.

It may sound like a brash statement, but once you actually watch him and others control and move cattle with well-trained dogs, you become a believer.

Ohio rancher/horse breeder/attorney John Lavelle agrees. “Gary and those guys out in Oklahoma say a dog can replace a hired man. We don't run those kinds of numbers here, and most people have their cattle bucket-trained, but good dogs can make a big difference on your operation,” he says.

Lavelle says dogs allow him to do all the cattle moving and gathering on his New Marshfield ranch by himself, using no hired labor even though he has it available. He says a neighbor, who raises Shorthorn cattle, tells the same tale.

“They save money, time, effort and labor,” Lavelle says of his Hangin' Tree cow dogs and “cow-bred” border collies.

It doesn't matter where you go; the claim's the same. If it were a headline, it might read, “Stock dog replaces cowboy!”

Dogs always show up to work

“In our country, it's hard to find day-working cowboys who are dependable,” says Don Russom, a Merkel, TX, rancher. “The dogs give us a freedom and independence we never had before.”

Russom describes how one day a few months back, he and his dogs gathered 150 cows and their calves from brushy pasture in his Texas Rolling Plains. They separated the calves and turned the cows back out in only a couple of hours.

So here's to the economics of this story, and to any hired cowboys reading this, a warning: The dogs keep looking better and better.

The average price for a full-time cowhand managing at least 250 cows is $22,000, plus $4,000 in taxes and benefits, says Stan Bevers, Texas A&M economist at Vernon. Bevers maintains a database for more than 500 ranches in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Compare that with a one-time price of $2,500 to $3,500 for a started dog, or $7,000 to $10,000 for a fully trained dog. Add another $500 for a permanent dog kennel and a dog crate for your pickup — all one-time costs — and you're still way ahead with a dog. Annual keeping costs on a dog can be about whatever you want to make them, but in reality, $500 should more than cover a year's worth of top-quality dog food, wormers and vaccinations.

Figuring a good dog will live and be productive for eight years, the average annual cost to keep the dog would only be about $1,800 if you started with the $10,000 dog. Round it up to $2,000 and you've still spent about 8% of the price of a full-time cowboy.

Moreover, everyone who's ever worked with cattle and hired cowboys knows blood-pressure medication, or at least the peril of high blood pressure, is another expense generally not accounted for in ranch budgets. It's quite possible, although not by any means certain, that good stock dogs can decrease those expenses, too.

“I've been managing ranches out here a long time. I don't like being boss and I've never liked it,” Glover says. “But if I can take the dogs out and get things done, I'm usually in a better frame of mind when I get home in the evening. It's not as much pressure for me working with dogs as with people.”

Alan Newport is a freelance ag writer based in Carnegie, OK.

Stock dog shopping

When it comes to shopping for a stock dog, never buy a dog that doesn't come from two herding/gathering, working parents that have proven their mettle with cattle.

Many great border collies have been imported to this country only to disappoint new owners because they weren't tough enough for cattle. In the British Isles, and especially in stock-dog trials in those countries, the dogs aren't allowed to bite or “take ahold of” stock. As a result, rougher dogs were culled from the population and only very gentle dogs remain.

On cattle ranches, dogs had better bite heads and heels when needed.

“You almost need a mean, snappin' SOB to handle cattle,” says Robbie Tuggle, who runs cattle, sheep and goats in northern Texas. “You can call a rough dog off, but you can't call a timid dog on.”

If you've never trained a stock dog, it's best to buy a trained or well-started dog from a reputable breeder/trainer. What these dogs do is very instinctive, but not fully automated, experts say.

Moreover, new stock dog owners need some training themselves. Reputable trainers want people to succeed and will teach their customers how to use their new dogs.

In addition, the cattle must be trained to respect dogs — preferably given exposure to dogs at least a couple of days before they're gathered or moved.

“Cows will fight to protect their babies if they're not accustomed to dogs,” says Don Russom, a Merkel, TX, rancher. Russom likes to “dog-break” his heifers to prepare them well before they have a calf at side.

Last but not least, stock dogs aren't yard dogs, nor are they to be carelessly allowed to ride in the back of a pickup.

“Many a good dog has been killed or badly crippled from falling from a truck. If you care for him, you'll chain him to the center and keep him there,” says Oklahoma Panhandle dog trainer Eddie Snapp.

“Another attribute of a good dog handler is tough love,” he adds. “Keep the dog penned until it is time for him to work. Good stock dogs are like special tools — appreciate them and care for them accordingly. A loose dog will get in trouble. If you don't give him a job or keep him busy, he will find a job.”

Resources