Faithful readers may recall Solano, the pet lead sheep. Last spring he was featured on this blog as he traveled with his herder, Alejandro, and the yearling ewes on the Savery Stock Driveway. He was sporting a backpack that Alejandro had fashioned for him, though I’m not sure what it held.
He has been hard at work as a lead sheep, helping to convince his more suspicious cohorts to enter the corrals. Here is is with a group of lambs, getting ready to load and head for the feedlot.
Solano will soon rejoin Alejandro and this year’s yearling ewes. Alejandro is anxious to reunite with his pet and co-worker.
I mentioned to some acquaintances that I couldn’t attend a Zoom meeting because I was busy moving sheep camp, it became apparent that they had no idea what I was talking about. However, they applied a humorous interpretation, speculating about what sheep camp might entail. They envisioned sheep playing volleyball, rowing boats, perhaps attending a crafts class. . .. All this made me wish that I were a graphic artist and could sketch sheep involved in summer camp activities. Alas–that is not my skill.
What I am actually doing, along with Meghan, is moving the sheep camps (portable homes) as our herders trail the sheep from the Home Ranch environs to fall pastures north of Dixon, Wyoming. These pastures also happen to be our lambing grounds in May and June. When the ewes left here in late June, their lambs were toddlers. They faced down bears and coyotes as they grazed on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forests in the summer months. The predators exacted their toll, but the sheep were defended by the herders and the Livestock Guardian Dogs (aka Big White Dogs). Now the sheep return with their almost grown lambs. They will graze on fall pastures on Cottonwood Creek until it is time to trail north to winter country on the Red Desert.
Leo on the trail with the sheep
herder, sheep and Baker’s Peak
guard dog on the job
along the Savery Stock Driveway
coming down the hill
sheep running under trailer parked on the Driveway
October is one of our busiest months. The cows and calves, and the ewes and lambs, along with yearlings of both species, have spent the summer on the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests. Our off-date is October 1st, so we stage the bands of sheep and gather all the cows we can find and bring them down to pastures near the Home Ranch headquarters. It has been a warmish fall and some of the cows are hiding out. Eamon and the cowboy crew have been backriding every day, but the best incentive is cold weather, which reminds the cows that it’s time to get the heck out of the Forest. We migrate along with the deer and elk as instinct draws the critters downward. This time of year, all the sheep and all the cattle are close to home. We work them through the corrals. The lambs are separated from the ewes. Often we sell the lambs this time of year, but this year we still have feed so we will keep them a little longer. The lambs are weaned and switched to a different bunch. The calves will be with their mamas a couple of more weeks, and then it will be time for them to be sold, as feeders or as replacements. It’s noisy as night, as the newly weaned lambs and calves call in the night, and the guard dogs who are now close to home bark all night to warn us of various impending dangers. To be fair, usually the coyotes are howling which makes the guard dogs even more on alert than usual. Tomorrow, we’ll start the sheep on the trail to our fall pastures, some 20 miles to the west.
Meghan, bringing down the cows
lambs in the corral at sunrise
Hampshire ewes hanging out with the bucks for March lambing
Theo working sheep
at the Home Ranch corrals
cattle in the Big Meadow
yearling ewes in Loco Canyon, with guard dog
fall colors with the Petite Tetons (the Mountain Formerly Known As Squaw)
Our friend AG Kawamura came to visit us from California, and to represent Solutions from the Land at the AgroForestry tour Pat organized. He had an extra day and we wanted him to have a true range agriculture experience while he was here. AG raises strawberries, green beans and other tasty commodities, so he is a true farmer, but had never tended sheep camp before.
Sure enough, as we were pulling the sheepcamp up the VERY rocky road to Bridger Peak, we heard a bang, followed by dust billowing out to the side. Soon we were looking at a really really flat tire. We had a handyman jack and a spare tire (and Alejandro’s pet lambs, Susan and Cunadita) in the back of the truck.
After a lot of jacking by AG, Pat and Tiarnan, they managed to get the flat tire off and the spare tire on. I was indeed helping by sitting in the driver’s seat with my foot on the brake.
After lambing, we trail the ewes and lambs to grazing allotments on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forests, where they find green grass, fresh water, and bears and coyotes. The on-date is the first of July, and we stage the trailing, one day apart–one bunch after another. When the ewes, lambs and herders and settled on their summer grazing grounds, it is time for the yearling ewes to start on the trail. They have been grazing in the high desert Badwater pasture since shearing in late April. They follow the traditional trails, including the Savery Stock Driveway, to their high mountain allotment in the Medicine Bow.
Solano with his backpack
The yearling herder Alejandro likes to keep an orphan lamb each year, and raise it as a pet. This summer he has two bum lambs, including one which was lost on the trail and picked up by our neighbor, Jock–an avid bicyclist. Alejandro still has his pet from two years ago, Solano. I was startled to see that Alejandro had “repurposed” a dog food bag into a backpack for Solano. I’m not quite sure what he was meant to carry. Solano is quite the sheep. Sometimes he follows Alejandro on his horse, and sometimes he hangs out with the dogs or the sheep. I like to say that Solano is “no ordinary sheep.”
We’re almost done lambing and it’s time for docking the lambs and getting everyone ready for trailing and summer’s grazing on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forests. Sheep are naturally long-tailed, and if those tails are not cut short early in life, they can have problems later with manure and flies. The assembly line process also includes earmarking, castrating the males, vaccinating for diseases and a stamp with a paint brand. The ewes also receive a fresh brand and everyone is counted. We usually run two docking lines with all hands on deck, and bring up a hot lunch and plenty of cold drinks.
It’s that time of year again. The shearers have shown up and shearing is underway. Each year it takes a lot of moving parts for fleeces to roll off the sheep and into the big bales. Our shearing crew are contractors who come out of California. We are their last client of the season. This is good because they are not under pressure to move on to the next producer, but nerve-wracking because we want to have the ewes shorn in time to trail to the lambing grounds north of Dixon. Lambing starts around May 10th.
We were fortunate with the weather this year. We had a snowstorm right before we were ready to start. The weather cleared and was warmish and nice for most of the week, allowing us to get through the “main line,” as the wool buyers call the running age ewes. The yearlings were next, followed by a brief, but not killer storm–always a worry for freshly shorn sheep.
Our crew packed up their portable shed–the shearing equivalant of a food truck–and moved to Powder Flat. The early lambers and the rams were there, and soon they too had given up their winter coats. Beulan and Maria the llamas were also shorn, much to their spitting disgust, but they are ready for summer.
It’s time for us to leave the Red Desert, as we do every year in mid-April. One bunch a day crosses a day apart for three days. This year road construction started on the third day, which meant to sheep had to be escorted by the pilot car. Since the railroad overpass can be dangerous and difficult, we were glad for the assistance. The ewes only have to travel about a mile and a half on WY Hwy 789 before they enter Rodewald’s pasture. Our neighbors, the Rodewalds, let us cross their private land to get to the Badwater Pasture, Shearing starts soon! (Photo credits to Meghan Lally and Linda Fleming
Spring is finally springing. It’s been coldish with intermittent snows. Just when we think it’s going to warm up and grow some grass, another snow storm comes through. Luckily for us, we did not get the calf killing Holy Week blizzards that buried North Dakota and eastern Montana. We got an inch of rain at the Home Ranch the other night, which took off our covering of snow. Finally, it’s warming up into the 60’s, which is good because we are expecting the shearers in the next few days.
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. He is active with several conservation and agricultural organizations.
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.
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 has also served on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture and the Environmental Quality Council, She and Brian are active in community service.
Daughter Bridget lives in Phoenix with her husband, Chris Abel, where she works in health care communications. Chris works in the food distribution 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 flight nurse. Eamon is a member of the Wyoming Beef Council and is active in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The blog traces the activities and life on the ranch, from the mundane to the fabulous.