I haven’t put up many posts this winter, mostly because it has been so overwhelming. 2022-2023 is one for the record books, not just for us, but all the way from Elko, Nevada to Rawlins, Wyoming. All of Wyoming, and parts of surrounding states were hit pretty hard. Interstate 80 was closed 55 times between October and early March. It seemed like every time they opened the interstate, someone died.
As this blog shows, we had to evacuate our sheep in January and early February from their usual wintering grounds on the Red Desert to safety on our hayfields north of Dixon. Normally, they spend December to mid-April grazing on the Cyclone Rim and Chain Lakes allotments before heading down the trail, first to the Badwater Pasture south of Creston Junction, then on to the lambing grounds near Dixon. Often we are worried about finding enough water and snow drifts along the trail. If the shearers show up on time, we usually shear at Badwater. If they are delayed, we set up the traveling shearing sheds on the lambing grounds. Sometimes a few lambs show up by the time we finish shearing.
This year our cows wintered on a friend’s ranch near Laramie. Who’d have guessed that Laramie would have a relatively mild winter with not much snow.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, we were buried. The Snowtels were measuring record snowfalls. The story that the Snowtels (measuring devices for snow and water content located high in the mountains) didn’t tell is the amount of snow falling in the lower country. The wildlife normally spend the summers in the mountains where there’s lots to graze. That’s where our cows and sheep spend the summers as well. In the fall, we all move down together.
In 2022-2023, the snowpack was “inverted.” It piled up in the lower landscapes where the deer, elk and antelope can usually dig down to dried grasses and be sustained through the winter month. Usually, especially on the high desert, winds blow the snow into drifts and leave bare ground for grazing. This winter, it started snowing in mid-December, then warmed up briefly allowing the surface to turn to liquid, then ice. This formed a solid layer which the animals couldn’t penetrate with their hooves.
We usually turn our rams in with the ewes on about December 13th. We were worried because we had to wait a few days since the roads were closed. I said, “Well, if it’s a stormy spring, we’ll be glad to be lambing a few days later.” Little did we know how prescient those words would be.
As chronicled in earlier posts, the ewes spent the winter on full feed on our snow-buried fields. We have brought in truckload after truckload of alfalfa to keep them alive. Family, employees and friends have done an heroic job. Some of the neighbors fed elk alongside their cattle, and we even had Greater Sandhill Cranes picking alfalfa alongside the sheep.
Deer and antelope are not very adaptable in their diet. They cannot digest hay and alfalfa, and we have watched them die. Now that the snow is finally melting, we find their emaciated bodies alongside the roads and piled under Juniper trees. Some few deer have survived by staying in town and foraging there.
It has been a slow warm-up so far. This is generally good because it slows down the flooding, but much of the snowpack is still in the mountains. We pray for warm days so the grass will finally come, but not too warm so we’re not inundated. Water managers in the Lower Basin States of the Colorado River are happy as they anticipate the runoff. However, Mother Nature is taking her due, soaking runoff into drought-dried soils, and evaporating into the sky. Even so, we hope to see significant rises in reservoirs large and small.
Today, I was in the feed store in Craig. An older gentleman, there loading up bags of feed, said “It sure is a nice day.” I agreed. It made me look around and appreciate it.
I went inside to sign the ticket and chatted with a young lady, there to pick up calving supplies.
We commiserated and told war stories about the winter. She told me about the scores and scores of dead deer, antelope and elk that she had counted along the roadside.
She said that she and her husband had thrown valuable alfalfa to antelope sheltering in a draw near their home. “They’re all dead now,” she said.
Finally, finally, most of the ground is bare and we are seeing a green sheen on the pastures and hillsides. The surviving deer, antelope and elk are looking a little better as they are able to forage. Most of them will make it now.
As for the sheep, they too will look a lot better once the green grass comes.
I hope now to spend the next months posting about sunshine, grass, lambs and great weather.