It’s that time of year again. We have lots of baby calves who need vaccines, brands and earmarks before they head up to the Forest with their mothers. We have a great crew this year. Everyone knows how to work together to minimize stress on both cattle and people.
Today was a Goldilocks Day–not too hot, not too cold, and not windy at all. I took our banker, Kim Brown, from the Yampa Valley Bank in Craig, Colorado out to the Red Desert to take a look a the sheep. Conditions were perfect, with enough snow for the ewes to water on, but not so deep that they couldn’t access the dried grasses which we count on for winter feed. Everyone looked happy–the ewes, the bucks, the dogs, and Pepe, Leo and Guillermo.
Pepe unloading dog food–we buy a pallet a week
guard dog checking us out
a curious Hampshire ram lamb, also checking us out
Pat and Sharon were invited to attend the COP26 climate talks in Scotland. We will post a blog for each day we attend. The posts are longer than usual, but it is like drinking from a firehose! The Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV) is sharing these posts with agriculture and conservation groups throughout the West. The IWJV’s mission is to protect migratory birds and habitat. Thanks for sharing, Dave and Hannah!
World on fire billboard in Edinburg
Greetings from Scotland! Pat and Sharon O’Toole are delegates to the COP26 event in Glasgow. COP stands for “Congress of Parties” and this is the 26th year it has been held. The gathering is sponsored by the United Nations (UN) in order to address climate change—both its consequences, and strategies to slow or reverse the rise in temperatures, severe storms, flooding, effects on health and other consequences.
We are in Glasgow representing the organization Solutions from the Land, where Pat serves as a Board member. SfL focuses on land-based solutions to global challenges, with ranchers, farmers, foresters and partners who advocate for enabling agricultural landscapes to bring solutions in such challenging areas as food and energy security, sustainable economic development and environmental improvement. (See solutionsfromtheland.org.)
Pat also serves a President of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators, and on the boards of Partnerscapes and the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV). The IWJV staff has kindly offered to distribute this blog, so thanks guys.
In the debate over climate change, and ways to address its effects, agriculture has become a whipping boy. Competing studies, including those by the UN, cite statistics attributing methane pollution to livestock production. These percentages range from minor to as much as 32 percent. This usually includes the agricultural part of the transportation sector, as we run tractors, transport food and drive home from the grocery store. Animal agriculture has been a particular target. It is easy to attack domestic livestock production without recognizing that properly managed grazing animals are a tool—indeed one of the very best tools—to regenerate soils and plants on the landscape.
Agriculture has been scarcely represented at past COPs and the discussions led by the United Nations. In fact, SfL is one of the few organizations which has shown up at the table to consistently carry the message that we are a solution, not a problem. Pat likes to say, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” We also need to be in the kitchen!
Our first impression is the stark gap between those who are on the land, and those who think they know a lot about it. Our job is to bridge that gap.
Last week—the first week of COP26—was attended by four American agriculturalists with SfL. This week, Pat and Sharon are attending with Iowa farmer Ray Gaesser. Up to 30,000 people are delegates and around 100,000 people, many of them young, are demonstrating outside. The demonstrators are demanding action to avert the disastrous effects of climate change, but we didn’t hear any solutions proffered. The folks inside the “Blue Zone” are supposed to come up with those.
Getting to Glasgow, being invited to the event, and just being able to attend has been complicated. The days leading up to arrival included lots of paperwork, proof of vaccination, and a negative Covid19 test. As one wag said, “30,000 people getting together in the midst of a pandemic—what could possibly go wrong?!”
The organizers have taken plenty of covid precautions, including daily self-tests reported to the Scottish government, and loads of sanitizers, wipes and masking. Outside, it’s just a bunch of people milling about.
We arrived a couple of days early and decided to see the sights. All the locals told us that we must visit the Highlands—at least that’s what we think they said since their English is somewhat different than what we hear in Wyoming. We booked a tour and went north. It is amazing country! We were heartened to see the pastures dotted with sheep and cattle.
As we travelled further north to Loch Ness (didn’t see the monster), the country became wilder and the scene of many a battle with the British. Think “Braveheart” and “Outlander.” In the rough north country, almost all of the cattle were Scottish Highlanders. With the chill and the wet, you can sure see why they’ve developed those coats!
The Scottish people couldn’t be nicer. They are not just friendly, but really go out of their way to help. Yesterday a young man saw us struggling to buy train tickets, and he stayed with us until we had the proper tickets in hand. We are staying in Edinburg, about an hour’s train ride away from Glasgow. In Wyoming, we’re a little short on public transportation, so the assistance was much appreciated.
This is an adventure, both in seeing the countryside and in attending the COP with people from all over the world. Our goal is to carry forward our message that agriculture is essential, and that it is a solution.
Beware of horns!
Highlands of Scotland
intrepid swimmers in the Loch
ferry at Loch Ness “You only see the monster, Nessie, if you’re not looking and you don’t have a camera”
Fall days are the time of year when the cattle and the sheep come down from their summer grazing on the the national forests. We bring them all to the Home Ranch, and sort them through the corrals. The ewes bring with them their whole entourage–herders, horses, Border collies, livestock guardian dogs. For a couple of weeks, we manage a rotating menagerie of sheep, dogs and–pigs? We keep a few feeder pigs over the summer to provide winter pork, but in the meantime the pigs consider themselves free-range critters who are likely to show up about anyplace. The guard dogs are suspicious of the pigs, but the pigs don’t care. I am reminded of “Babe” and wonder if we couldn’t train them to herd livestock. They are utterly indifferent to the dogs, who are puzzled by the pigs.
The McCullem Place is part of our Powder Wash ranch west of Baggs. It serves as spring pasture for some of the cows and calves. The homestead era headquarters is mostly gone, so we set up portable corrals, brought in the cows and calves, and processed the calves. These are some of the Akaushi-cross calves so we also had to take a snip of ear to check their bloodlines. We built an old-fashioned fire to heat the branding irons. We had another great crew of family, friends and employees.
Megan and Eamon discussing her future run at the NFR
We know how to have a good time on a Saturday afternoon. Eamon borrowed Ed Buchanan’s roping dummy on wheels. He pulled it with the four-wheeler, giving McCoy, Tiarnan, Rhen and several adults the chance to practice their roping. A good time was had by all!
After the cows come down from summering on the Forest, it’s time to learn if they are pregnant. It’s hard to get them to pee on a stick, so our neighbor, Dr. Ben Noland comes with his ultrasound and checks for pregnancy. One after another, he calls out “Pregnant,” “Open,” or “Late.” “Late” means pregnant but calving outside the window of time when we want to be calving. We also vaccinate, check and sometimes replace eartags, and look at the cow’s general health. Most of the cows go into the pregnant pen. Some of the lates will be sold to other producers who calve later. Pregnancy testing is a key management practice since we don’t want to feed cows all winter only to learn that they won’t be raising a calf next summer. Thanks to Dr. Ben and our entire hard-working crew!
It’s shipping time for the calves. Some of our calves, born last spring, will leave the mountains and their mamas and head to buyers who will feed them for market. Some heifer calves are sold to a buyer who will raise them to be replacement cows. Some heifers calves will stay with us to become our future cow herd. In every scenario, we bring the cows and calves into the corrals at the Home Ranch, sort them, wean them from their mothers who are already pregnant with next years calves, and send the calves to their various homes, and the cows to winter country.
Tate, and multiple Border collies, bringing up the cows
Bubba watching the gate
Pat and Bubba watching the cows
through the rails
Eamon sorting, Ned the brand inspector watching from the fence
As the elk and the deer
head down from summer’s grass
calves and fawns by their side
we gather cows, their calves and
hope for good weather.
We hook up the sheep camps,
move our community of critters—
ewes, lambs, dogs, horses.
The shepherds shift from early mornings,
lazy afternoons, fights with bears
trying to find a camp spot among
tourists, campers, refugees from Covid.
At home, we stage the sheep, bringing them
bunch by bunch to pastures,
to the corrals
For sorting, for judging who stays,
who goes, some to the desert
some to farmers with soft fields and warm barns.
Lambs climb onto trucks—
first the heavies, born early,
next the lights,
and finally the peewees
headed for corn and lower country.
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.