Cat Urbigkit promotes ag through writing
Pinedale – Sublette County’s Cat Urbigkit says she’s always been a reader and a writer, but she never really thought about writing books herself.
However, now she finds herself the author of eight books, with more in the works. Urbigkit has written professionally for 16 years, beginning her first reporting job when her son started kindergarten. In 2006 she quit and started writing books full-time.
“Writing books was my husband’s suggestion,” says Urbigkit. “Around 2004 I had a bunch of great photos of our guard dogs and our sheep, and he said he’d never seen pictures like that any other place, and that I ought to consider doing a book.”
While considering the idea, Urbigkit naturally gravitated toward the idea of a kids’ book.
“I love kids, and there are no other competing titles on the market with subjects similar to what I wanted to do,” she says. “There was nothing out there to compare with my first book, ‘Brave Dogs, Gentle Dogs.’”
Cat and her husband both had ag backgrounds and started their own ag operation with orphan lambs 20 years ago. Today they live 30 miles south of Pinedale near the New Fork river.
She says that, because agriculture is one of her great passions, the ag industry has been the logical subject for her books.
“Living and working on a ranch, we see beautiful things every day, and I take my camera every day to try to capture that, and to share it through my books, which is why all my kids’ books are ag-related,” she explains.
After starting their sheep flock, the Urbigkits started with guard dogs.
“We tried different dogs of different breeds, and I’ve always been fascinated by them,” she notes. “We’ve had some really good luck with the dogs, and other producers started buying livestock guard dog pups from us, because we’re fairly stationary so we can bond them to the sheep well, and we socialize them well so they’re catchable.”
As demand grew, some of the dogs they’d raised were killed by wolves.
“Eight of the dogs have been killed by wolves, that we know of,” she says. “As the wolf range has expanded, we’ve had wolves on our place, and we’re fortunate none of ours have been killed.”
In response to the growing wolf threat, the Urbigkits began corresponding with others around the world who also raise guard dogs.
“We published one paper in the Sheep and Goat Research Journal, and we wanted to take it a step farther and see the dogs and interview the producers about what they were doing and what we were doing wrong, or not doing,” says Urbigkit.
The Wyoming Wool Growers Association sponsored the Urbigkits in a petition to Wyoming’s Animal Damage Management Board for funding for a research trip to Europe and Turkey, which took place a year ago in October 2010.
“The most unexpected thing on the trip was how entirely different their grazing systems are,” says Urbigkit. “There are very few fences, so every flock of livestock has a herder associated with it. Even if it’s only five cows, they have a herder.”
Urbigkit adds that in Europe livestock owners are paid to graze livestock, and are paid a higher rate if they use livestock protection dogs.
“The thing I liked most was that I got to meet Spanish mastiff dogs in Spain, and I wasn’t expecting how effective or large they are,” she says. “The dogs are very effective against wolves, and we visited ranches in central Spain that had bands of sheep living with packs of wolves on the sme ranch. When you have 11 Spanish mastiff dogs with a thousand head of sheep and very few losses, that’s an amazing record.”
Urbigkit says that, in response to the trip, their operation will transition to the breed.
“We haven’t imported them yet, but the federal government has expressed interest in our recommendations,” she says.
Urbigkit’s newest book is “The Guardian Team,” released in October 2011. It focuses on livestock protection animals, featuring Rena and Roo, an adopted wild burro and a young Great Pyrenees puppy, following them as they bond with sheep and each other.
In addition to her children’s books, she has one adult nonfiction title already, and is signing a contract for another about pastoralism around the globe and its importance to primitive agriculture. She anticipates its release in the fall of 2012, and several more kids’ books in the next couple of years.
Of the book on pastoralism, Urbigkit says she spent the majority of last year out on the range, by herself in a sheep camp, lambing out a herd of ewes.
“I enjoyed it so much, and had such a wonderful experience out there by myself that it really upsets and disappoints me when we have all the different attacks on agriculture and public lands livestock grazing, specifically,” she says. “I started writing the book in camp last year, so it’s somewhat a defense of public grazing, and it looks at the grazing traditions of pastoralists around the globe.”
She adds that many countries have wrecked livestock migration routes, only to now attempt to reestablish them because of their benefits.
“This book is all about the voice of our primitive agriculture,” she notes.
As far as finding publishers for her writing, Urbigkit says she’s always doing it “backwards.”
“I’ve gone ahead and written what I wanted to write, then tried to find the right publisher,” she says. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. All my writing is done at my own risk, but I believe in the message I’m trying to get across, and I’m willing to take that risk.”
Urbigkit does have a consistent publisher for her children’s books – Boyds Mills Press out of Honesdale, Penn.
“I went with them because they have a commitment to agriculture,” comments Urbigkit. “They love ag books, and want to continue with them, so some of the best ag books for kids, and some of the best authors, are with Boyds Mills Press.”
Of writing independently full-time, Urbigkit says, “I have absolute freedom to take advantage of the day and what’s happening on the ranch. If it’s beautiful and conditions are right for photos, I can do that, and if it’s nasty outside I can stay in and write.”
Today the Urbigkits run a small farm flock to accommodate their travels for guard dog research, and because of writing and speaking engagements.
“Having a small farm flock is like being on vacation, but I’ll always have my sheep herd, because animals are good for your soul,” says Urbigkit.
For now, Urbigkit says she hopes to stay home while the snow flies this winter, researching and beginning the writing process for her next kids’ book on sustainable farming.
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.