Farm Dog Contest

The Farm Dog contest celebrates farm dogs and the many ways they support farmers and ranchers in producing nutritious food for families and their pets across California. Farmers submitted nominations for the 2022 Farm Bureau Farm Dog contest, supported by Nationwide.

The grand prize winner – Farm Bureau Farm Dog – will win $1,000 in prize money. The 2022 winner will be recognized at a Farm Dog award ceremony at the California Farm Bureau Annual Meeting in December 2022.

Border collie Crystal, the Grand Prize winner of the California Farm Bureau's second annual Farm Dog Contest, eagerly awaits instructions. Photo: © 2022 Melissa Jewel

Farm dog contest entries bring winning combination

Story by Linda DuBois

Photos by Melissa Jewel

They're diligent laborers who help with the arduous workload around farms and ranches. They're faithful companions who bring joy, and often fun, to farm life. And for some farmers and ranchers these past couple of years, they've been something even more: a bright light during a dark time.

Such are the tail-wagging winners of the California Farm Bureau's second annual Farm Dog Contest. Open to Farm Bureau members, with support from Nationwide, the contest asked entrants to submit photos and a brief story about their dog. The Grand Prize winner earned $1,000, with First Place receiving $500, Second Place $250 and Third Place $100.

The following is the story of the Grand Prize winner: a cow-herding border collie named Crystal.

Crystal herds a stubborn cow at the Boersma family's dairy in San Jacinto. Photo: © 2022 Melissa Jewel

Top dog

It was over a year into the pandemic and the Boersma family was drained physically and emotionally.

Faced with a staffing shortage, Eric and Dena Boersma and their four young-adult children were working long hours, seven days a week at their 1,200-cow dairy in Riverside County's San Jacinto.

"Everyone in the family was exhausted and we just couldn't keep up," Dena Boersma said.

Herding the cows was especially challenging. With each cow wanting to go in a separate direction, it often took two to three people to move them, she said. "Sometimes there weren't two people to even do it because we had to be doing other things. So, one person would be trying to move them, and it was just frustrating and exhausting."

But that was BC—before Crystal.

It was son Hayden who came up with the suggestion that changed everything: "What if we had a dog to help us?"

While the family had had dogs, cats and other pets, they had never before had a working dog. But it sounded like a plausible solution.

Running the family dairy are the Boersmas—Lauren, Dena, Eric, Hayden and Hannah. In the foreground are their loyal border collies Crystal, left, and Smokey. Not pictured are son Riley and his wife, Cassandra. Photo: © 2022 Melissa Jewel

New beginning

After much searching, in mid-July, the family adopted 3-year-old border collie Crystal from a California man who trains dogs to herd.

She's been everything the family needed and more.

"Whenever she sees a cow, her ears perk up and she gets all excited, ready to go to work," said Eric Boersma. "Crystal is always by our side when we are in the corrals or pastures, looking intently for her next assignment."

She's bonded with the whole family—which also includes son Riley and wife Cassandra and daughters Hannah and Lauren—but works especially well with Hayden. He's invested the most time in learning to work effectively with her, including mastering all the hand signals and commands Crystal already knew.

"I had to learn a lot and continue with her training," he said. For example, "a herding dog's tendency is just to bring the animals to you, so you also have to teach them to drive them away from you. That takes more practice."

Crystal also needed a little help with her confidence. While she came to the family proficient at herding smaller animals (she learned with sheep), she was a little afraid of the cows.

"Going to cattle is a bit different because they're a lot bigger and can be more stubborn," Hayden said. "So, Crystal got a little intimidated once in a while, especially if it was a group of cows and they didn't really want to go anywhere."

Here's where Smokey came in. Since getting Crystal, the family has adopted a "retired" cow-herding border collie that needed a home to live out her senior years. While she's primarily a pet rather than a working dog, Smokey has shown Crystal how to be more assertive with obstinate cows.

"Retired" cow-herding border collie Smokey, left, helps Crystal learn how to be more assertive with obstinate cows. Photo: © 2022 Melissa Jewel

Family member and inspiration Crystal seems to love her work, but at the end of the day, she enjoys relaxing in the house just as much. Dena Boersma notes that Crystal wasn't really part of a family before coming to them.

"She was raised just in training and so she lived in a kennel outside," she said. "When she comes home, she wants to cuddle up on the sofa and she just wants to be with you. And she doesn't discriminate…. She loves everyone."

Crystal has brought happiness to a year that not only included the hardships on the dairy, Boersma said, but also the death of her father and a beloved pet dog.

"I think she's taught us some good lessons," she said.

"She's a little on the small side for a border collie, and she's a little scared sometimes because the cows are huge, but it doesn't make her quit. She goes after it. And if she doesn't get it right the first time, she goes after it again. And when you watch, you're like, 'OK, yeah, we can't completely control our circumstances, but we don't give up. We just keep going. And we keep trying.'

"She's so happy and grateful to have food and a warm, safe place to sleep and a family. And I think, you know, we have those same things. We have the ability to work, and we feel like it's a privilege to be in an essential industry where we provide healthy, nutritious food for people and their families. We have plenty of food ourselves. We have a nice safe, warm, dry place to live. We have a good family. She reminds us to count our blessings and be grateful for what we have and not focus on just the negative or the hard part."

Eric Boersma agrees. "In one of the most difficult years we have ever experienced on our farm," he said, "Crystal has helped us not only to endure, but also to rediscover the joy that farm life brings."

Linda DuBois

More tales of protection, loyalty and companionship

California Farm Bureau's second annual Farm Dog Contest generated 44 entries from members throughout the state, highlighting a variety of breeds and roles. Here are the stories of the three runners-up.

Hugo is a good ranch watchdog, but is gentle with the grandchildren, including Kayla Bohan. Photo by Shirley Bohan

First Place: Hugo, Great Pyrenees mix, Butte County

The Bohan family's dog Hugo is a 2-year-old Great Pyrenees mix that protects their Polled Hereford cattle from potential predators on their home ranch in Durham and summer pastureland in Lassen National Forest.

"After reading about Great Pyrenees, in Ag Alert, being guardian dogs for sheep and cattle, we decided to give it a try," said Shirley Bohan, who runs the ranch with husband Tim, sons Travis and Evan and daughter-in-law Erin.

"Our summer pasture unfortunately was completely burned over by the Dixie Fire, but still abounds with bears and mountain lions," she said. "Hugo is great at alerting us to possible predators with his large, deep bark. In most cases, those predators choose to retreat rather than bother us."

When not working, Hugo enjoys going for walks with the family every evening when they feed the horses and calves and accompanies them when they are out on the horses checking cattle, riding fence lines or looking for tracks.

Scout enjoys riding around the farm on the quad—or any vehicle—with Gary Caviglia. Photo by Claire Caviglia

Second Place: Scout, German shepherd, Tulare County

Scout was found abandoned alongside a roadway as a puppy—and moved from city life to a citrus farm near Visalia in May of 2020.

"In one day, she adopted the Caviglia family (Gary, Leslie, Claire and Carly) and the grand life of being a farm dog," Gary Caviglia said.

"Little did we know that she would want to ride in anything that we drove, including the trail motorcycle, quad, brush shredder, skip loader, sprayer, weed oiler, forklift, topper and hedger."

On a typical day, before sunrise as Caviglia starts his day, Scout runs up the hill to clear the area of any lingering dogs or coyotes to make sure it is safe. Once in the vehicles, she continues to be on the lookout for anything that appears dangerous or that might chew the irrigation lines.

"We don't think the jackrabbits are too bothersome, but Scout sends them on their way," Caviglia said.

Harper has been Vanessa Ramirez's helper and loyal companion at three different ranch jobs. Photo by Vanessa Ramirez

Third Place: Harper, Australian shepherd mix, Monterey County

Vanessa Ramirez and her 4-year-old Australian shepherd mix have worked together on three ranches and moved multiple times.

"As a puppy, Harper worked on the ranches with me every day. She was so well behaved and very attentive. She thrives working alongside animals," Ramirez said.

Their first job was on a water buffalo ranch, followed by a goat and sheep farmstead creamery.

A natural herder, Harper helped move the animals in and out of the milking parlors.

Now Ramirez works on a goat and sheep operation where Harper can't go every day.

"I cherish the days she does get to come out and work with me," Ramirez said. "She is so great about walking behind the tractor as I feed, and she walks around the barn like she owns it!

"We currently live on a cattle ranch. We hike the ranch every night, and it is essential to have her with me in case we run into a mountain lion."