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Hamilton Sheep Co.

I have only recently joined OSDS as of Jan. In a recent trial-side conversation with Bill DeVoe regarding what I should expect from my membership in OSDS, as well as kicking around ideas for articles in the newletters, I suggested that somebody start interviewing sheep ranchers in our region for the Newsletter.

Bill and I thought this would have several positive effects: I have always been interested in dog work on large operations, since I have only a small flock (50-100 ewes) of my own, and I was excited for the chance to interview ranchers in our region regarding how large operations are using sheepdogs to their advantage. Secondly, it would open up OSDS to greater awareness of ranchers and how the organization can help them find and learn about great working sheepdogs. Lastly, finding sheep for trials is usually a challenge. While I interview them, they would have a chance to get acquainted with OSDS. This would perhaps provide them with some familiaity when a member approaches them about possibly renting sheep for a trial.

In responds to my inquiry Bill DeVoe simply said, “Great, would you like to write it.” In taking up the prospect of my idea I sought out interviews with ranchers within our region. My first interview was via email submitted questions to Mr. Hamilton of Solano County, CA. I for one have learned a bit from his responds.

Eric: What is your background in shepherding?

Mr. Hamilton: My family has been in the sheep business dating back to the 1860's in California. I have been involved with raising and herding sheep since I was a little kid.

I started out as a little kid working with my father. I was involved in 4-H where I started my flock of Suffolk sheep, which I still have today. In 4-H, I was both a state and national winner in Sheep. I have made farming and ranching my profession and have been a partner in our family's ranching and farming operation for ~ 22 years. I have been active on the political side of the sheep business, where I am a past President of the California Wool Growers Assn. and currently represent Region 8 on the executive board of ASI.

My sheepherders are all from Peru. Their length of employment with us ranges from 6 to 20 years. All our herders started as H2A employees and most have gotten their green card so they can bring their families. We still do use H2A employees and we get them through Western Range Assn.

All my sheepherders had experience in raising and herding sheep in Peru. The main difference for them is the number of multiple births they deal with in the US compared to Peru. To come to the US, they do have to demonstrate that they do have the knowledge and ability to raise and manage sheep.

Where is your ranch located?

Our ranches are located in Solano County in California. Our ranches lie between the cities of Rio Vista and Dixon. We also ranch and farm in the Sacramento Delta region on Ryer Island.

What type of terrain do you graze on?

All our sheep are managed under fence, either permanent electric / woven wire or temporary electric fence. Our sheep run in both rolling hill conditions and flat range type conditions. We run on both native grass pastures and on crop residues like wheat, barley, safflower, or alfalfa. Since we dry land farm grain in the Montezuma Hills, sheep compliment the grain farming. We also use the sheep to feed our alfalfa off in the fall plus use them to feed safflower and grain crop residue in our irrigated farming operation.

Tell me about your ranch operation and what type of livestock that you have.

We have both a commercial sheep operation that has 3900 ewes and a purebred sheep operation that has 90 ewes. We also have a growing cow/calf operation that is currently 230 cows.

We created our own composite breed of sheep, which is 3/8 Finn + 3/8 Targhee + 1/4 Rambouillet. We have been a closed flock for over 30 years. Our purebred operation is Suffolks. Our cattle are mostly Angus.

How many teams (handlers/dogs) do you require during the peak times on your ranch?

Lambing is our peak time for our sheep operation and this period runs from Oct. to March. From Jan to March, our cows calve. We have 4 full time employees in which 70 to 100% of their time is dedicated to our livestock. We do hire to one additional full time employee during lambing and one part time employee during lambing. Each of our 4 full time employees have at least one dog and 2 of my employees, who are 100% livestock have more than one dog and are occasionally training puppies.

I try to maintain a strict rules that to limits the build up of too many sheepdogs. If the dog doesn't work out, get rid of it. If the dog is too rough with the livestock, get rid of it. If you can't kennel the dog at night, I will get rid of the dog. I only want dogs that are an asset to our operation and to the herder that is using them. These rules are tested on a regular basis.

On average how big a flock is a dog required to work? At what size flock do you consider working multiple dogs, rather then a single dog?

The size of our flocks depends on where are in the production cycle. Our range can run from 100 to 1200 ewes. It depends on what the operation that we are performing - working in the corrals or moving sheep from pasture to pasture. Personally, I prefer to only use one dog at a time no matter the flock size or the operation. Every dog has his or her specialties and you never want to ask a dog to do something that he or she is not trained or has the ability to do. Age of a dog is important on the task load he or she can do. With my herders, they might use more than one dog, but my rule is that I want to minimize the stress and get the job done in an orderly manner and use good judgment.

One important key that I feel is over looked when herding sheep or working sheep at a dog trial, it is the ability to understand normal sheep behavior and understanding they normal movements and traveling habits. If you understand the behavior of sheep, you can move sheep in very large numbers quite easily by positioning your dog to take advantage of the sheep's normal behavior or reaction to your dog placement. Understanding animal behavior comes from experiences in observing animal normal behavior and reaction to any stressful condition. Knowing the relationship between the animal's age and normal behavior is extremely important. The way you handle a flock of yearling ewes is different to a flock of older ewes. Rams are different from ewes.

In observing the dog trials at our ranch over the years, I see dog handlers try to do things with their dogs that go against the sheep's natural behavior and the handler puts his or her dog in a disadvantage to not being successful. In most cases, the dog is not the problem it's the handler. The handler needs to balance his or her dog’s ability to knowing the natural behavior reaction of the sheep being moved to be successful

Do you often require multiple dogs when gathering? If so, does a single shepherd working multiple dogs at once or is it one dog/one shepherd

We gather sheep in a fenced field setting. The outrun for gathering depends on the ability of the dog. I have had dogs that could go out over 1 mile depending on the layout of the field. The answer to most of this question can be referred to the answer of the previous question.

Do your shepherds most often work form horseback/ATV/foot?

We sometimes work sheep out of a pick up, but mostly by ATV. Part of a dog's training is to teach the dog or dogs to ride and sit on the ATV. At certain times, a herder could travel up to 50 miles a day on an ATV so it is vital to get the dog broke to riding. Before ATV and we used trail bikes, we would tie up dogs on various parts of the ranch, so you would not run one dog to death. You would take one dog so far and relieve the first dog with a second and sometimes third dog.

Are your dogs required to both drive and fetch sheep?

Driving and fetching sheep are the main jobs for our dogs. The ability and quality of doing the task is dependent on the age and ability of the dog. Along with field-to-field movement, we drive sheep on county and state roads all the time. I have had some dogs where I could move a bunch of ewes (500 or more) on a county road with very low traffic by myself. I would be in front of the bunch and the dog would be in the back. After we get done moving, I would go back and look for any sick or crippled sheep that might have stopped in the travel.

What breed of dog does your ranch most use? If it is a cross, what is the cross?

I prefer Border Collies. We have had some crosses that have been good dogs. No matter what breed or what cross or what pedigree, not every dog is going to be a good sheepdog. I feel the ability of the parents of a dog will give an insight on the potential of a dog, but it is not 100%. Today, my best sheepdog, which could gather sheep from a mile away or crawl into a truck to help unload lambs, came from good working parents. But my dog was the only pup in a litter of eight to turn out. When you deal with biological factors to determine success, it is not an exact science.

Are there any specific physical characteristics you look for in a working dog? Example, lots of leg, thick/thin coat, light/heavy bone, color preference.

I prefer strong built, fast, athletic dogs that do exhibit patience, but strong action. Since our weather gets hot and we can have sticker problems, I prefer short hair dogs. I will pay close attention to a dog's paws and the amount of hair between the toes.

How do you feel about a dog that bites sheep while working?

Sometimes a dog needs to grab or bite at the wool to get movement or change direction of an animal. You need to be able to control grabbing or biting of a sheep.

We do teach dogs to catch sheep in the field, so we can treat or to move to another place. This is one of the last [things] we teach a dog. A dog needs to understand it is not a sport or game, but a task in the same manner as flanking or driving.

Are these dogs breed on the ranch or do you buy them from breeders/trainers?

We have both. Almost all my herders' dogs are dogs raised on the ranch or they got them from another ranch. I usually will buy a pup or depending on the time of year, a started dog that I will finish.

When buying dogs from off-ranch source, how important is trial wins in the dog’s pedigree?

Buying a dog that won at a dog trial is like by a ram that was a champion that the sale you bought him at, it means nothing if the dog doesn't work in real life ranch conditions to the manner I need things done.

The way dog trialing has gotten so popular and the amount of money spent on dollars. Personally, dogs are over priced based on ability. High dollar value doesn't translate into a better dog. The need and greed to win has made the price of dogs and training a lucrative business.

I do have insight to what goes on in the world of sheep dog trialing. Over the years, I have had many dog handlers come to our ranch to work their dogs and I have heard what they have paid for training and dogs. A good friend of mine, who works his dogs and helps my herders, and I talk about it all the time.

When I buy a dog I prefer to buy males. (I’m a sexist!) I want to know about the parents and if possible see the parents work sheep. If I am buying a dog that is started, I want to see the dog work (if possible on my sheep and at my ranch). I want to see how the dog reacts to non-trained sheep.

Do most of your shepherds have their own preferred lines of dog?

Not really. They prefer dogs that work rather than cosmetic features or a certain breed.

Do your shepherds provide their own dogs or do you provide them with a dog?

In general, I don't provide dogs. I will something pass my older dog down, when I can't give the dog enough work. Foreign herders can have a high turnover rate on dogs. Foreign herders have to learn about kenneling dogs, because in some parts of the world animal (like dogs) are never kenneled or penned. Most herders try to start puppies at too young of age. For these reasons and from past experiences, I don't buy dogs for workers, but I do have a say on whether the dog stays on the ranch or not.

During peak times at your ranch, how many dogs does any single shepherd work (not necessarily at the same time)?

One or two.

Is there a peak working age for your dogs?

Not really. It depends on the natural ability of the dog. I have had dogs at 2 years of age do as good or better as a 6-year-old dog. I tend to stay away from late maturing dogs.

What is the average life expectancy for a working dog on your ranch?

With my herders, the average life expectancy is quite lower (maybe 4 to 5 years), where I the average life expectancy of my dogs is probably 8 to 9 years of age. The difference is in the management of the dogs.

On average how much ground would a dog be expected to cover in a working day?

It depends on the time of year; a dog could actually work 6 to 7 hours in a day and during shearing up to 10 hours a day.


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