Have I just turned off Charlotte St. and into the Yorkshire Dales? Is PBS filming “All Creatures Great and Small” in Asheville?
I park and join the small crowd of spectators. Above the chilly December wind I hear the soft language being spoken to the dogs.
A single dog approaches the sheep slowly.
“Away to me…”
The dog begins a wide circle to the left, and when he reaches a point on the circumference he hears,
The dog stops circling, and moves the sheep calmly to the man’s feet.
The dog moves away from the sheep and holds a station from which she can still watch them.
He forgot to say, “Pig” I think to myself…”That’ll do, Pig.”
The first time I heard that phrase was in the movie Babe. I didn’t realize ‘That’ll do” is a standard shepherd’s command.
Watching the scene raises goose bumps. A man issues quiet commands, the dog silently responds, and the flock of sheep are moved….safely, calmly and quickly. I’m impressed by the efficiency, but the unspoken bond between the man and his dogs moves me. Human to animal then animal-to-animal communication…could this not be the first form of wireless communication on earth?
The man is Bill Coburn who has trucked his dogs and sheep from Laurens, SC to give sheep dog demonstrations on the grounds of the Grove Park Inn for their Celtic Festival.
Bill grew up in Pomfret, Maryland. The town was so small that there were only three family names, so neighbors called each other “uncle” or “cousin.”
“In that town, your first house was free,” says Bill. “Neighbors would volunteer their time nights and weekends until the new home was built.”
Bill enjoyed farming, so at an early age, summers found him working on relatives’ farms in MD and VA. He was inspired by farmers’ self-sufficiency: to survive they learn the skills needed to solve their daily challenges: from roofing, plumbing and electrical, to carburetors, hydraulics and welding on heavy equipment.
To finance his own dream of farming, Bill found work with AT&T in their maintenance department once he graduated from high school. Like many large companies, AT&T provided free schooling to their employees.
“I didn’t know how I’d use any of this new knowledge, but you never know,” he says. Farming roots inspired him.Bill signed up for everything.
This proved to be fortuitous, because one of the courses he attended was the servicing of Microwave communications equipment. He liked it, had a feel for it, and management noticed. He was asked to consider switching jobs, but there was a catch: he had to be approved for a Top Secret security clearance. What?!
AT&T has a long-standing contract to provide equipment and personnel to handle all the sensitive wireless communications between Air Force One and the rest of the world. This is a network of antennae and transmission houses scattered all over the world and staffed by specialized AT&T employees.
“Here I was, a farm boy with a high school education, and I knew where the President was going to be before the secret service did.”
This important and highly technical employment provided Bill and his family a comfortable income. As much fun as he was having on the job, Bill missed living on a farm. His chance came in 1978 when AT&T needed him to man a station in Greenville, SC.
Bill and Donna found a house with some acreage south of downtown. Nights and weekends were used to mold a farm out of the scrub pine plot. It wasn’t long before trees were downed, pastures planted and fencing popped up.
He had some experience in working on dairy farms, so he raised Brangus cattle, a blend of the Brahman and Black Angus breeds. He needed a helper for moving cattle around, so he found a classified ad selling border collie pups.
“Dogs are the best helpers, they won’t show up drunk, don’t ask to borrow money and they’re ready to work when you are.”
Bill’s first farm hand was named Nikki. He had never trained a farm dog, but he had seen plenty at work. Following him around the farm did the trick, by nine months of age, Nikki had her job figured out…dog intelligence at work. She helped move cattle from barn to pasture and collected strays. This last task she took to heart. After Bill had sold a few animals, Nikki would roam the pastures looking for her ‘lost cattle.’ She was invaluable, maintaining order while Bill was working at his day job.
One day, a customer arrived to buy a bull. As Nikki was moving the huge animal up a ramp to his trailer, the new owner paused his check writing.
“…and how much for the dog?”
“Mister, you don’t have enough money in your checkbook for that dog,” replied Bill.
“I’ll give you ten thousand dollars for her,” was the counter offer.
“Nikki’s not for sale.”
“Can I pay you to train one for me…please?” begged the man.
“I don’t know a thing about dog training,” replied Bill.
The customer looked from Nikki to Bill not quite understanding.
Right then, Bill realized two things:
Nikki was getting older and would soon retire.
He really didn’t know how to train dogs.
Bill went looking for a dog trainer and connected with Colin Clear, a man whose dogs compete in Field Trials, competitions where sheep dogs are judged for their working capabilities.
Colin refused to teach Bill how to train a dog for farm work, insisting that the dog be prepared to compete in the far more difficult arena of field trials, then farm work would be easy. His first task was to find a ‘started dog,’ an animal that is partially trained for herding; this would make the process easier.
No started dogs could be found; instead Bill found a reputable breeder who had a litter of Border Collies. Colin advised that starting with a new puppy would take much longer and be much harder for Bill, but he trusted his gut and went ahead anyway.
This collie was named Joy, the first sheep dog that he was to train. Within one year, she won the Presidents Cup Pro Novice event in field trials. This, of course, she did during her days off. When not competing, Joy was working cattle back on Windy Knolls Farm.
Bill really enjoyed the process and the mental communication used in training dogs. His trainer friend suggested that he buy some sheep for the dogs to practice on, so he did. He bought four Barbados sheep, which grew to six on the drive home: two of the ewes were pregnant.
The Barbados sheep could jump fences pretty easily and they were prone to kicking the working dogs, so Bill began looking around. He found out that farm customers were clambering for locally raised lean protein. The decision was made to move away from beef; sheep were good business, easier to handle than cows and they also fed his hobby of field trial competitions.
Bill started to expand his flock with Katahdin sheep, which grow faster and are popular for their meat. He kept the Barbados as pets.
The new breed was selling well, and customers asked if he could sell them a sweeter tasting meat, so Bill began crossing Katahdin with Dorpers, which is the hybrid he sticks with to this day.
Bill retired from AT&T thirteen years ago which allowed him to concentrate on Windy Knolls Farm full time.
Today, the 113 acres can support a flock, as large as 300 head. The property is run by 6 border collies who herd the sheep and two Great Pyrenees who guard them. Some shepherds use llama or donkeys to guard their flocks, but this can invite competition with the herding dogs. For this reason, Bill prefers the Pyrenees.
How effective are the guards? A few years back, Bill lost one suddenly. Within three weeks of the dog’s passing, predators killed 17 sheep.
Windy Knolls Farm is involved in two interrelated markets: sheep and sheep dogs.
The dog side of the business is driven by the farm’s success in herding competitions. Each summer the dogs and their owner work a circuit from Maryland to Florida to compete in field trials. In between events they perform demonstrations. Bill is paid to bring his sheep and dogs to a site where people can watch his dogs in action, either for educational or entertainment value. He has performed at schools, libraries, hotels and hospitals.
He also brings a few ducks and stage props along. Why?
“Ducks are far harder to corral than sheep,” says Bill. “They can turn on a dime in unison, so it really keeps the dogs on their toes…and the kids in the audience love to see the ducks walk through gates or over a little bridge I bring along.”
Bill breeds a dog only to keep his bloodline fresh, which can be frustrating for customers. There is a man in Florida who has been waiting two years for one of his canine prodigies.
His involvement in trials competitions has been vastly rewarding on many levels. What originally started as a hobby became a catalyst for change and a roadmap for his farm.
While hosting and judging field trials Bill began to notice particulars of how dogs and sheep interact, what works and what doesn’t. The successful dogs have ‘stock sense,’ meaning that they understand what sheep like to do, as opposed to trying to force the sheep to do something unnatural.
Sheep farming sounds idyllic: dogs do the guarding, dogs move the sheep from pasture to pasture while birds serenade from the trees. All this is true, yet the business side of this enterprise is demanding.
Prices have skyrocketed on fuel, fertilizer and feeds. Sheep customers prefer grass fed livestock to corn or other feeds. This is challenging as SC is in a deep drought, which worries Bill that he’ll not be able to feed his flock entirely on pasture grass this summer. He also has to be on top of market timing.
That’s right, there are sweet spots in the sheep business that successful farms are ready for. Spring is hot with Mother’s Day, Cinco de Mayo and graduations. Easter holds a special challenge: one month before the holiday, photographers want newborn lambs, called “day olds” for Easter pictures.
The summer market has two important holidays: July 4 and Labor Day. Bill sells his sheep live, directly to the families that eat them. The majority of his customers originate from other places: Jamaica, Guatemala, Peru, Haiti and Mexico. People of Muslim faith also prefer sheep for protein, and they too find a way to Bill’s farm.
Nature provides dogs with a certain innate wisdom, which allows them to remain “in the moment.” Relaxed, calm and fully aware they stand ready to react to the livestock they tend and able to communicate with their masters. Mankind however, is challenged with an overly active mind, which can sometimes cloud the human instincts.
Bill has walked through life relying on his gut feelings. They brought him a valuable career in wireless communication, as well as the deeply satisfying communication with animals. When challenges arise, he patiently watches for solutions, all the while trusting this inner guidance.
When a man starts to live in the moment, he learns to use time more wisely. Bill points to his wrist, devoid of a watch.
“I don’t have one. You can’t stop time, can’t slow it down, you may as well enjoy it.”