It’s that time of year again. December rams mean May lambs. A sheep’s gestation is five months less five days, and usually we put rams into the ewe flocks on December 15th. A big snow storm was predicted for the 15th. Since some of the roads are scary, especially I80, we decided to haul bucks on the 14th.
The rams wait all year for these winter weeks. A ewe’s heat cycle occurs every three weeks, so we leave the bucks in for six weeks or so. The rest of the year, they are bachelors (except for the lucky few who get to hang out with the early lambers in October). For a few weeks, it’s all romance, all the time!
Each March, we lamb our purebred ewes, Hampshire and Rambouillet, in the sheds at Powder Flat. We raise our rams for the commercial range ewes from these two farm flocks. Luckily, we have a good crew and the early weather has been mild.
Pat and I were in Peru in mid-July, where we met with officials from the American Embassy regarding our difficulties with H-2A visas for our skilled Peruvian sheepherders. We spent a week as tourists. Our long-time employee, Pepe, recommended that we visit the Colca Canyon, which is famed for its Andean Condors.
It is twice as deep as the Grand Canyon, but in a very different landscape. The upper part is scored with relatively gradual slopes. They are very steep, with dramatic mountains rising on each side. The slopes have agricultural terraces—some from pre-Inca and Inca times and some more recent. As the canyon, and the terraces change in altitude, the crops vary in relation to the micro-climate.
When the Spaniards conquered the indigenous people living in Colca Canyon, they “resettled” them from remote farmsteads into towns where they were more easily “governed”. The twelve towns established by the Catholic Church each have a square and a beautiful church, which have largely been refurbished. For centuries, the Church provided most of the government of the region, since it was so isolated. Llama trains bore goods back and forth to Ariquipa. A highway brought the region into the modern world, and today it depends on a thriving tourism business.
On August 15th, not long after our visit there, the area was rattled by a shallow earthquake. At last count, nine people were counted among the dead, including an American tourist. Scores were injured, and access through the winding mountain roads was cut off. This followed hard on the heels of an unusually cold snap which killed thousands of head of livestock in southern Peru.
The area depends on agriculture and tourism. We were amazed by the number of tourists visiting. Each of the twelve towns in the valley has developed a unique attraction. We visited Yanque, the town most hard-hit of all. The tourist attraction in Yanque is traditional dancing in the Plaza de Armas (town square) every single day. When we saw the dancing, I thought of the movie “Funny Farm” where the locals relentlessly ice skate to impress visitors.
Still, the dancing was wonderful, and we weren’t there for any of the many festivals where we might have seen dancing. I admired the local folks for figuring out a way to extract income from the many tourists visiting the area. I read that the Plaza is now filled with folks whose homes were destroyed. We pray for them.
Adolfo as St. Nick ( the snow was too deep to drive the cake to the waiting critters)
I feel like I’ve stepped into “Dr. Zhivago” with piles of deep snow everywhere. It’s more like an old-fashioned winter, and we are glad to have lots of hay in the stacks. Luckily the temperatures aren’t very cold (relatively speaking) and it just keeps snowing. I know this is making our friends in California very happy! Glad to help out, folks, but you could come help shovel the sidewalks!
It always feels like we dive down the rabbit hole on about April 15th, and don’t come out until after the Fourth of July. By mid-April, we were well into calving, and getting set to trail the ewes south from their Red Desert wintering grounds. Since they start lambing around May 8th, it is important for them to be sheared before then. We also need to fit in several brandings for the calves.
This year has been especially challenging because we are very short-handed. For an unknown and possibly unsolvable reason, the American Embassy in Lima, Peru, turned down two of the herders we were counting on for lambing, including our longest term employee, Oscar Payano.
We were a little late getting on the trail with the sheep because two major storms “blew out” the sheep, meaning that the wind blew so hard that the sheep just walked before the storm and scattered over many miles. Twice they mixed with a neighboring band of sheep. This all had to be sorted out before we could start the 90-mile trail to the lambing grounds. It did give us snow to trail on, since most of the reservoirs were dry. (Sheep can survive by eating snow in lieu of fresh water.)
We also had the adventure of working with a new sheep shearer. Our old shearing contractor, Rod, sold his business and retired to New Zealand with his wife, three-year-old daughter and newborn twin sons. The new shearer proved to be less than ideal during the 2012 shearing (conscientious, but slow). For this season, Meghan engaged a reputable shearer, but that crew also ran late due to the April storms.
In the meantime, we shanghaied our in-laws and recruited our friends and neighbors so that we could raise branding crews.
The excellent news is that we have been gifted with timely spring rains–not too cold, not too stormy. The grass is growing and life is good (except for the absence of Oscar).
Patrick and Sharon O'Toole are ranchers in the Little Snake River Valley on the Wyoming-Colorado border. They represent the fourth generation on the six-generation family ranch. The O'Tooles raise cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children on their high country ranching operation. The transhumance operation stretches from north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado to Wyoming's Red Desert.
Pat has served in the Wyoming House of Representatives, the Western Water Policy Commission, and is currently President of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators and water users in the western United States.
Sharon is a writer and poet. She writes extensively on western issues, and the relationship between landscape, animals and people. She is widely published as an author, essayist and editorial commentator.
Sharon's father George, 89, passed away December 25, 2010. He lived much of his life in the house where he was born, and remained active in the day-to-day life of the ranch. Mr. Salisbury was a decorated World War II veteran, a former member of Wyoming's House of Representatives, and former President of Wyoming's Board of Agriculture.
Pat and Sharon have three children. Their daughter, Meghan and her husband Brian Lally, live on the ranch with their children, Siobhán, Seamus, Maeve and Tiarnán. Meghan also served on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture, and she and Brian are active in community service. Daughter Bridget lives in Denver with her husband, Chris Abel, where she works in public relations and he serves agriculture in the food business. Son Eamon and his wife Megan live on the ranch with their sons, McCoy and Rhen. Eamon is a horseman and natural resource manager, and Megan is a nurse.
The blog traces the activities and life on the ranch, from the mundane to the fabulous.