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Meet Kay: The best farm dog in Illinois

Slideshow: The judges’ results are in, and the winner of the 2024 Prairie Farmer Favorite Farm Dog contest is Kay.

Betty Haynes

June 20, 2024

7 Slides

On the hills of Cass County, Ill., a stealthy black-and-white canine can often be found weaving her way through a herd of Shorthorn cattle. She moves low to the ground, navigating every step with the signature low-slung border collie stature and attentive ears. Her instincts are undeniable — separating calves from cows with careful precision, ensuring every member of the herd is accounted for.

Her name is Kay, and she’s earned the title of 2024 Prairie Farmer Favorite Farm Dog.

Kay’s owners, Dalton Johnston and Devin Bollman of Cagwin Farms, raise cattle in Virginia, Ill. Both grew up with dogs but say they never had one like Kay.

“Kay is worth her weight in gold,” Devin says. “She’s so much more than a cow dog.”

From puppy to herdsman

In the summer of 2022, one of Dalton’s friends gave him a call. The friend’s border collie, Kira, was pregnant, and he wondered if Dalton was interested in any puppies.

“It was an obvious yes,” says Dalton, explaining Kay’s bloodlines. “Kira was obedient, a good worker and great help at cattle sales — really, everything I wanted in a dog.”

In November, Kay was born, the only female of Kira’s litter.

“Kay was my grandmother’s nickname,” says Dalton, explaining that Kay is a namesake to his late grandmother Kathleen. “I wanted a K name like Kira, and it just kind of stuck.”

Kay was a curious puppy, wandering around the farm, meeting the other animals and getting the lay of the land. She spent her puppyhood helping on the farm and traveling with Dalton and Devin to cattle shows across the country.

At Cattlemen’s Congress in Oklahoma City, the pair noticed young Kay helping herd show cattle to tie-outs. Instantly, they knew she was more than just a sweet puppy.

“She’s always been a go-getter and a born prodigy,” Dalton says. “She never had any training; her herding instincts were immediate.”

Kay spends her days herding cows, chasing chickens, guarding gates, riding in the passenger seat and, on occasion, rolling in the mud.

“She gets grumpy if anyone else sits in the passenger seat,” Dalton says, laughing. “That’s her spot.”

Tough and tender

Dalton and Devin say Kay takes the place of multiple employees on the farm, cutting down the time it takes to do daily chores. But what makes Kay so unique is her combination of sweet and serious.

“One second she’ll curl up next to you on the couch and the next second she’s all business,” Devin says.

This tough but tender demeanor carries into her work too.

“She’s gentle sorting calves and aggressive sorting cows,” Devin says. “She’s also tough as nails — I’ve watched her get kicked in the face and keep going like it was nothing.”

Kay has also taken Devin’s mini Australian shepherd, Ryder, under her wing.

“Kay leads Ryder around the farm by his leash and herds him into pens,” Devin says, laughing. “It’s like Kay thinks Ryder is her dog.”

Ultimately, Ryder has a trusty companion in Kay as the pair call Cagwin Farms home.

Dalton and Devin are also looking for an eligible suitor to breed Kay.

“She’s such a high-quality working dog that it would be a shame not to have more Kays in the world,” Dalton says.

In the meantime, she’s a well-known barn celebrity, making the rounds with friends at cattle shows.

“She always has to walk up and down the aisles, getting pets and giving kisses to little kids,” Devin says. “Everybody loves Kay.”

Kay in brief
Sweet, smart and serious
Favorite farm job: Herding cattle
Favorite treat: Frozen cow patties
Favorite chew toy: Deer antlers
Favorite person: Dalton
Tricks: Sit, shake, lie down, fetch

About the Author(s)

Betty Haynes

Betty Haynes and her husband, Dan, raise corn, soybeans and cattle with her family near Oakford, Ill., and are parents to Clare. Haynes grew up on a Menard County, Ill., farm and graduated from the University of Missouri. Most recently, she was associate editor of Prairie Farmer. Before that, she worked for the Illinois Beef Association, entirely managing and editing its publication.

Haynes won the Emerging Photographer Award from the Ag Communicators Network during the 2022 Ag Media Summit. At the 2023 AMS, she was named a Master Writer and winner of the Andy Markwart Horizon Award.

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