We have started lambing the purebred ewes at Powder Flat. They are the moms of our future bucks and many replacement ewe lambs, and we lamb them earlier so these lambs will be older when it’s time for them to become working sheep. Our hard-working crew of Peruvian employees are supported by frequent visits from Meghan and her crew.
Rambouillet ewe looks after her twins
Here’s looking at ewe.
Tiarnan with a Hampshire lamb
Hampshire ewes and lambs hanging out by the heifers
Filo, trucker, Antonio, Pepe and Jenri with the loaded wool truck
After all our adventures with shearing (and we still have a few ewes to shear and lambs to dock!), we loaded the first load of wool today. Most of it is bound for the U.S. military. Here is our intrepid loading crew, including the Utah trucker who came to haul it. One more load to go!
The trucker said his Dad helped him buy this semi after he returned from eight years in the Marine Corps–three tours in Iraq and one in Afganistan.
This spring, for the first time in our experience, we have lambed our ewes in the wool.
This situation occurred, in large part, because shearing contractors cannot get enough foreign shearers through the broken H2A visa system, and not enough American shearers are available, even though shearing sheep pays very well. In our particular situation, our usual shearing contractor was not honest with us as to when his crew could realistically arrive, which left us with no time to find another shearer—a nearly impossible situation anyway.
By mid-May, we realized that we could not get the ewes sheared before lambing. I tried explaining the difficult situation to the ewes, but they refused to wait another week before giving birth. As a mother, I can relate to this. And also it was raining every day.
We did manage to find an American crew out of California, but they were able to shear only a day and a half before the rains and the lambs really set in. This left us with 6000 or so sheep left to shear, including the yearlings. The California crew said they could come back in June, after things slowed down, sort of. This was good, because the shearing contractors who depend on foreign (mostly New Zealand) shearers lose their crews as the visas run out in late May. I will say that hardly any American crews exist, and the industry needs its foreign shearers to “get the clip out.”
We did get through the lambing, which was inevitable due to the certainty of birth. This left us with several thousand wooly ewes, with lambs at side. At this point, we not only needed to shear the ewes, but we had several thousand lambs to dock.
We decided that we could shear and dock at the same time—in fact, that we had to. Luckily, our California shearing crew was flexible, and was willing to move their portable shed every day to the site of each ewe and lamb bunch. We set up corrals so that the ewes could run straight ahead into the shearing shed, and the lambs could be drafted off to side pens and into a docking line.
Usually, to minimize stress on sheep and human crew alike, we bring the ewes with lambs in in bunches of 300 or so. With the shearing/docking situation, we had to do each entire band at a time—typically 850 or so ewes, and their lambs—usually about thousand. We had to do this because we couldn’t separate the ewes and young lambs for more than a few hours. As I told the wool buyer, “Take a good look, because you’ve never seen this before and I hope you never see it again!”
Pepe, Richard, Meghan, Oscar, Cassie, and Jean Carlos on the docking side of things
Bum lambs–sometimes we have more lambs than mamas with available milk
goat mama fostering lambs
For many years, our lambs have been born on the open range, under the care of herders. Lambs usually come into the world under one of three management systems. Shed lambing calls for a lot of management, and a lot of labor, as the new moms and baby lambs are brought into the protection of sheds, and placed in “jugs” (little pens). In the past, we have lambed in sheds in March. We raise our own rams and for a number of years, we have shed lambed our farm flocks of Rambouillet and Hampshire ewes, who are the moms of the replacement bucks.
Most of our ewes “drop lamb.” Pregnant ewes are tended by herders. Each morning and evening, they ride through the sheep and “cut the drop.” This means that the ewes with brand-new lambs are “dropped” back, while the still pregnant ewes are moved ahead to fresh ground. This requires a large landscape, with the ewes scattered among sage and grass. In a few days, the ewes and their baby lambs have had a chance to “mother up” and are gathered into a bunch. When these flocks of ewes and lambs are put together, and the lambs are docked, they will trail on up to the Forest for the summer months.
The third way of lambing is open range lambing. Some producers with large tracts of private land build tight fences, concentrate on predator control, and let the ewes lamb without assistance.
Shed lambing saves the most lambs, due to one-on-one (or two, or three, or even four) attention. Drop lambing still involves a lot of labor, and has the advantage of keeping the sheep on clean ground. The herders ride through the sheep constantly and help any that require assistance. The disadvantage of drop lambing is vulnerability to bad weather, and increased exposure to predators, from coyotes to ravens. The weather has been more volatile the past few years, with spring storms killing hundreds and hundreds of lambs.
In an attempt to reduce our losses to weather, we have constructed a couple of large sheds in the last two years. The investment in infrastructure has been considerable, but our goal is to save lambs, and give ourselves, and the sheep, more protection against the vagaries of weather. This involves a lot of work for us and our employees.
On the range and in the sheds, our employees and family members are working to keep the ewes and lambs healthy. It has rained every day since we started lambing, and we are lambing in the wool, due to the shearing contractor not showing up. Even the ranch cook has helped out, after bringing hot lunches to the shed every day. Way to go, crew!
Brittany, all-around ranch hand, bringing ewes and lambs in from the corral.
ewe and lambs get a ride in the bucket–a speedy ride to the shed
Lambing shed full of jugs and lambs
Two-year-old ewe with triplets
Pepe, real men fill pink water buckets
new shed, waiting for tenants
Pepe putting a skin graft on a lamb to be adopted by a new mom
Drop lambing on Muddy Mountain
Antonio helps a ewe on the Loco lambing ground
Rain, sleet, snow–intrepid lamber!
Adolfo, Avencio, Brittany, Pepe, Julia, Benoit, Filo, Eduardo, Leo–our French house guests helped out too!
In mid-winter, we shear the ewes that are going to lamb in March. When it goes well, we even shear before lambing starts! We do this for several reasons. Even though it seems early to shear, all goes better if the wool is off before the first lambs hit the ground. We raise our own bucks, which means that in order for them to be “of age”–at least some of them, by next winter, late winter/early spring is the time to be born. It is important for the ewes to be out of the wool for a couple of reasons. In cold weather, if the ewe is not cold, it doesn’t occur to her that her lambs might be cold and she should seek shelter. And when those lambs are looking for nourishment, it is helpful if tags of wool are not hanging down in strategic locations. Anyway, thanks to Cliff and Donna of Hoopes Shearing, we have spent two days shearing the early lambing ewes and the mature bucks. What did the bucks do wrong, you might ask? Well, then we don’t have to figure out how to get them staged for the main shearing in April (April, right Cliff and Donna?).
Often, well actually, always except for this year, it is pretty cold in mid-February and we feel guilty removing wool coats from the sheep while we are all wooled up in sweaters and long underwear. I don’t know if we have weather or climate change to thank, or blame, but this week, we had ideal shearing weather–not too cold, not too warm–Goldilocks Weather.
We do have a few lambs on the ground, due to errant buck lambs–born last March–you get the picture.
Sorry, but it was too dark in the shed to get shearing shots!
unshorn ewes, Brittany, Gyp, Antonio, shorn ewes–in that order
free at last!
Rambouillet ewes, after the blade
Sharon, working the pink chute
Donna loading fleeces into the brand new packer
which has a few glitches…Antonio and Oscar pushing out the first bales
Justin, who keep the wool packer working!
Maeve and Seamus checking out the new bales
Siobhan trying to push her siblings off the wool bale
Seamus and Maeve dueling with livestock working sticks
brands of growers on the side of the purple Hoopes Shed (with lime green accents and the pink chute)
Pat and I celebrated New Year’s Day by visiting our employees, cows, horses, dogs and birds at Powder Flat (the sheep were a little father out). We could do this because we spent New Year’s Eve partying hardy with Pat’s Mom Marie, 98; Maeve, 8, McCoy, 4; and Rhen, 2. The cows are enjoying the bounty brought by last summer’s rain. They are still grazing, and looking fat and happy in spite of a couple of 30 below nights. We also admired two–count ’em two, litters of Livestock Guardian Dog puppies–seven each. That means puppies for sale! We also visited with last summer’s colts and a lot of birds who are enjoying the corn and hay.
Antonio and Tiarnan check out guardian litter number one
Four noses: Tiarnan, Antonio, guardian dog Mom, pups–litter two
Antonio, Pat, Oscar, Tiarnan and Eduardo at Powder Flat
Mother and child reunion
Birds of a feather
Battle Mountain and Baker’s Peak from the west
Baker’s Peak and Mount Oliphant
Winter grazing at Powder Flat
Powder Flat headquarters with Powder Mountain to the north
And on the way home–the ones that got away, from the hunters
The bucks are in a hurry to get out of the trailer
It’s that time of year, finally. The bucks have been waiting, sometimes patiently (spring) and sometimes not so patiently (fall), but after ten long months, it is time for them to join the ewes, thus ensuring a spring lamb crop. We took a load of blackface bucks to the Black Tie reservoir area at Powder Wash, where they joined the ewes there. We had an experience we hadn’t had before–the guard dogs puppies, born last spring and now ambitious adolescents, did not like the strange bucks joining the flock. They’d never seen rams before, and they correctly ascertained that the rams did not have honorable intentions. The barking and chasing did damper their lust, until we called the dogs in and convinced them that the presence of the bucks was OK. It’s been a dry early winter, but a snowstorm did come in today.
Has anyone else noticed the prevalence of “Fun Day” to describe gatherings in our community–and it’s true. We in the Little Snake River Valley really know how to have fun! Right after Labor Day, we have an end-of-summer, about to plunge-into-fall-work, guess-it-will-be snowing-soon celebration. This year the Community Barbeque included a barbeque (go figure), bouncy big toys for the kids and some grown-ups, live music, an arts and crafts display, and, of course, The Mostly Peruvian Soccer Tournament. One of our neighbors donates the use of his hayfield, next to the museum, as a soccer venue. Most years, the hay is put up, and the stubble is a little stiff. This year, due to generous (some might say overabundant) rains, the field featured somewhat soggy windrows, some of which had been raked aside to allow for clear soccer fields. This year, eleven teams played. A few were turned away, after being deemed to be too far afield and too semi-pro to participate. This gives you an idea of how many Peruvians are employed in agriculture in our area and surrounding communities. This is a day that the players look forward to all year. Even though several of our sheepherders left their flocks for the day to play for our team, the Osos de Ladder Ranch, alas, our guys did not prevail. Still, a good time was had by all–truly Fun Days!
Peruvian soccer game in the hayfield next to the Little Snake River Museum
Sundog, entertaining the crowd
A fabulous quilt by Aggie Stocks on display.
Rainbow over the swingset and museum
Oso Antonio with Rhen
Kids in line for the bouncy toy, with their shoes off
Eamon on the bungee pull, with Brenden
Museum Director Leila Emmons with McCoy , Tiarnan, and the garden planted with the kids on Pioneer Day
Sally Martinez supervises the roasting of the lamb, beef and pork
Peruvain soccer players check out the Strobridge House
Rhen at the top of the slide which has terrified generations of children
We are in the midst of docking lambs. We have to hit the “sweet spot” after the lambs are big enough to dock without too much stress, before they get too big–which is stressful to the crew, and soon enough before we trail to the Forest to recover and be ready to follow their mothers. We also have to dodge stormy days, the schedule for artificially inseminating the cows, and the imminent arrival of the wool truck.
Our Peruvian sheepherders are glad to be through most of the lambing. Now their biggest worry, and ours, is the loss of the lambs they worked so hard to deliver, to coyotes. Yesterday, we lost 10 lambs altogether in the various bunches–and that was just one day.
Docking means that we have moved the portable corrals to the temporary site where we have set up the day before. The herder has the sheep staged to go into the corrals early in the morning. We hope to do this in an orderly manner without the lambs running back and scattering into the brush. Once the ewes and lambs are in the corral, we start bringing them up in small groups, dropping the lambs into the small front pen, and paint branding the ewes in the forward pen, counting, and turning them out. We keep bringing them up in small groups until the last lamb is docked and the last ewe is counted.
On the docking line, each lamb is earmarked with our distinctive earmark. Buck lambs are castrated and the lamb carriers carefully place them in the “Dinkum Docker”–a mechanical holder which restrains them as they are vaccinated and slowly slide down to the bottom. The “tailer” sits at the bottom and sears off the tails with a hot knife. This is the safest and most humane way to remove the tails, since it is quick and leaves a clean wound. Another crew member holds the back legs to ensure that the tailer does not get kicked in the face, and applies a gooey mix of creosote and pine tar. This has antiseptic qualities and keeps the flies away. Finally the tailer flips the lamb over on his lap so that the brander can stamp on the paint brand.
The brander is often a child. It is a skilled job, since the brand needs to be in the middle of back, and stamped on without too much wasted paint. The paint is formulated to be scourable after the wool is sheared off. Pat always tells the brander that the other lambs will make fun if the brand is off-center or incomplete.
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.