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Kate's Cows Ain't Misbehavin' on Her Watch

Border collie lets the 1,500-pound Holsteins -- and sometimes sheep -- know who is boss. Aim is to reduce stress, aid milk production.

January 05, 2003|Linda Ashton | Associated Press Writer

GRANGER, Wash. — In the chaos that could be when 160 dairy cows come home, Kate alone keeps it all under control.

With a steely gaze -- called simply "the eye" -- the 6-year-old border collie gets very little guff from even the most reluctant of the 1,500-pound Holsteins in the herd headed for the milking parlor.

"That'll do, Kate, that'll do," Allen Voortman calls out, temporarily releasing Kate from her duties and inviting her to leap onto the back of his all-terrain vehicle.

Kate is a stock dog, a popular working-class canine that's being celebrated nowadays in glossy coffee table books such as "Cow Dogs" by David R. Stoecklein, calendars and, more traditionally, in cowboy poetry.

At 53 pounds, she's all muscle and can do the work in many ways of five farm hands, said Voortman, who drives a truck with a bumper sticker that says: "My border collie is smarter than your honor student."

Kate's greatest strength may be her ability to keep ornery cows or nervous sheep calm and compliant with her powerful, quiet intensity, expressed usually by her taut, low crouch and an unrelenting stare.

"Our whole operation is based on minimizing stress on the animals, on people and on the environment," said Voortman, who's had his 300-acre Pride & Joy Dairy in central Washington's Yakima Valley since 1978.

That stare is called "the eye."

"It's basically how the dog controls the livestock -- through its gaze," said Linda Fogt, who with her husband, Bruce, has 10 border collies in Sidney, Ohio, where they publish the 2,000-circulation "The Working Border Collie" magazine.

"A border collie doesn't bark. The dog controls the livestock through its eye and through its movement."

Dairying is best when it's stress-free for cows, said Mark Leader, spokesman for the Dairy Farmers of Washington.

"Here you've got animals working with animals, trying to create a stress-free environment for cows," he said. "The dairy dogs are an integral part of keeping cows calm, and happy, contented animals produce more."

With Kate's help and that of another border collie, 2-year-old Chew, the cull rate of cows that are removed because they are bad producers is about 8% for the milking herd at Pride & Joy, compared with 40% nationwide, Voortman said.

"Our goal is to have our livestock think that they are where they are because they want to be," he said.

Kate knows when to put the pressure on and when to back off with her herd, which is considered "dog-broke," meaning that the animals recognize her authority.

When challenged, Kate can be a "whirling dervish of muscle and teeth," but it's a last resort. "A cow dog that won't or can't bite will get killed," he said.

The dairy's 2,000-pound bull is so, well, cowed by Kate that he just stands in a corner with his head hanging down when she's around.

The American Kennel Club recognized the border collie as a registered breed in 1995, part of its group of herding dogs.

Border collies live to work. They gather animals much like pulling an imaginary drawstring around a herd.

Moving right or left on Voortman's command, Kate can round up dairy cows, push them through a gate and up a lane into a corral.

"Did you notice she knows just how much pressure to use to keep them walking?" Voortman said. "See the intense stare. She hasn't barked. She hasn't bit."

Kate -- with her one brown eye and one so-called glass eye, which is part brown and part blue -- can also hold a band of about a dozen sheep, nearly stock still, in one place almost indefinitely.

Her toughest job is moving Voortman's 35 head of beef cows and calves, traveling over hill and dale and across creeks with protective mothers and their babies.

"That's really the ultimate test of a cow dog, if a dog can move beef cows with calves," Voortman said.

Her 3-month-old daughter, Reba, on the other hand, is a work in progress. A bundle of not-quite-disciplined energy, she finds everything a distraction. Unlike her silent, focused mother, Reba barks up a storm when she's not quite sure what to do.

The sheep -- in the thrall of Kate's eye -- seem oblivious to the pesky puppy.

"By the time this one is 6 months old, she'll know the majority of commands that Kate is trained to," he said.

Kate is trained to 14 voice commands, along with hand signals and a whistle, all of which ultimately save Voortman time.

"I want a dog that knows its commands but can think on its own," Voortman said.

He can leave gates open while he shuttles bales of hay into a corral -- without the cows getting out -- a job that might take two or three humans.

And without Kate, penning sheep would be an exercise in futility.

"We would be here from now until eternity," Voortman said.

"Those sheep would run away."

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