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
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!
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.
Crunching as the calf dives into dry willows
“Quakey” aspens rustle up autumn, leaves flutter to the ground
“Hup, hup!” I holler, trying to spook the calf out of the willows
A thump on the ground as I dismount, followed by
more crunching as I thrash through the willows
A sigh as I realize the calf has somehow escaped me
“Hey there, pretty baby” as I push the filly aside
“Stand still, I said” to my mare as I mount
We sit very still, listening
to low bird song and the chuckle of aspen
but not the bawl of a calf
“Hey, you guys OK?”—our cowgirl come back to see what’s taking so long
“Holy cow, look at that!”
A smoke plume silently rises, signaling the faraway
crack and crash as molten trees succumb
as animals dash madly from the deadly flames of the Mullen Fire
Another sigh—of relief—that the blaze is far away
“That calf caught up”
The quick clop of hooves as we trot up to the herd
“Come by! That’ll do!” Reluctantly the Border collie drops back
Mooing—meaning “get over here and stay by me”
Whinnying as the filly realizes her mom and I have moved to the lead
Clip-clopping as she races past the cows to catch up
They watch, knowingly
The distant rumble of cars, trucks, RV’s
The flash of my gloved hand
“Just go slowly. The cows will move. Watch the calves”
Finally, the clank of chain and squeak of gate
as the cows and calves slip through
to green grass
The dark settles, birds silent
September 30 is the off-date for most of our Forest permits. Bridger Peak above Battle Pass is one of our highest grazing areas for the sheep in the summer. Alejandro takes the yearling ewes to the top of the Continental Divide. He had a flat tire on his wagon, so German changed the tire before we pulled the camp down the really rocky road to the highway. Alejandro shepherds the yearlings with the help of his border collies, his livestock guardian dogs, and his pet lamb, Solano. We saw snow on the Divide, and glorious fall colors on the trail down.
The ewes and lambs graze on the National Forests in the summer months. They move through a rotation so that they are not in any area for long. Part of the journey for Pepe’s sheep includes several weeks in high mountain pastures near the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. He stays in a tent and we pack in his groceries and dog food. When he drops into the north fork of the Elk River, we bring his camp to him. This involves a drive down a death-defying curvy road to a wonderful mountain meadow. Bubba came along, both to learn the way and to provide the muscle.
July 1st is the on-date for the forest permits where our ewes and lambs graze for the summer. While the ewes are lambing at Cottonwood, the yearling ewes hang out in the Badwater pasture, some 40 miles to the north. The ewes and lambs are usually settled on their permits for the summer by the 4th of July. The permit where the yearlings graze for the summer has an on-date of mid-July so it’s their turn to trail. Yearlings can move a lot faster than the five miles per day required by the federal agencies, so they usually move right along. This year was exceptional. Due to drought, very little water was available as we trailed. We discussed hauling water, which is difficult and expensive, but Alejandro said he’d rather make more miles and go from water to water. This meant that one day, the yearlings covered about 20 miles, which usually takes three days. They were tired, but really happy to see that reservoir. They are young and healthy and did fine, but I hope we don’t have to do it again. We rested them in our State Land pasture on the lambing grounds, which had feed and plenty of water, then pushed on to their summer permit. They spend the first few days on our neighbor’s private in-holding. We appreciate the extra grazing, and he values the reduction in grasses for wildfire protection. Alejandro did an excellent job in shepherding them through the dry country.
The reservoir’s in sight below Muddy Mountain
Trailing the yearlings onto their summer permit (Yes, that’s smoke in the air.)
Settled at last on Condict’s. That’s a smoke plume from the Morgan Creek Fire on the right.
Now that the sheep are sheared, it is time to head 40 miles south to our lambing grounds. Trailing was held up a couple of days by stormy weather, but the moisture was welcome. We are pushing hard to get there before we have too many lambs on the ground. Now it’s time to pray for perfect weather, no predators and green grass!
The ewes are eager to migrate to the Cottonwood lambing grounds.
Pepe has picked up the ewes with early lambs and one guard dog.
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.