When most of the lambs are on the ground, we are faced with the next big task–docking. This is a major job which involves handling each and every lamb which has recently been born–giving it an earmark, castrating it if it is a male, judging if it is replacement quality if it is a female, vaccinating for enterotoxemia and tetanus, cutting the tail, and last, but not least, stamping on a paint brand. This operation involves a lot of moving parts with a lot of coordination of critters and people. It calls for all hands and the cook!
Heading into the corral
Bringing up the ewes
Docking crew ready to go
McCoy, with the docking crew and the Dinkum Docker
Siobhan taking a break
Rhen and Tiarnan–the happy dockers!
Tyler, German, Juan and Rafael at the docking board
Each June, we artificially inseminate a selected group of cows to famous bulls–or at least their “on ice” reproductive avatars.
Crew at the ready
Thanks to Eamon’s crew, including his cowhand sidekicks Jeff (his father-in-law), Mike and Karen Buchanan (who have returned to cow work after retiring), intrepid ranchhand Brittany, and Eamon’s wife, Megan (on-site medic). The AI crew included his sister-in-law, Halli. And not to be forgotten is his mother-in-law, Georgia, who wrangled McCoy, 4, and Rhen, 2.
so WHERE’S the bull???
Oh wait–it’s Adam!
Megan from the AI crew (left) and Megan from the Ladder crew (right)
the real McCoy
Georgia on the job with Rhen (dirty job but somebody has to do it!)
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!
It’s the time of year to brand the calves. We have a mixed crew–all ages, but generally experienced. Here are photos from three brandings–hence the varied backdrops. When we branded the desert calves at the McCullem Place, our long-time (not “old”!) friend Mike Buchanan helped us. Mike worked for my Dad back in the day, and spent a number of years managing the wild horse training program at the Wyoming Honor Farm. He’s back to cowboying now, in his spare time. When I introduced him to our young ranchhand, Cody said, “Mike Buchanan! Everyone’s heard of him!”.
Most of the calves are branded, but we have lots of spring work ahead of us. We have had great rains, after an open winter. We were worried about the drought, but for now, we have blessed green grass growing.
The bucks have done their job and are back on the Home Ranch for another ten months of bachelorhood. It’s easy enough for them. In the meantime, the ewes carry their pregnancy to term, trail 100 miles or so, get sheared, and have their lambs. The ewes then trail to the Forest with their lambs, raise them–dodging coyotes, bears and ravens, and trail back to the ranch for weaning.
Some of the rams have given their all, and won’t make it to another breeding season. We sorted out the bucks who are old, thin, and/or no teeth, These will be sold and are destined to be buckburgers or dog food.
The rams do lead a good life, and we take care of them until the end.
Brittany, Meghan and Katie checking teeth
Tiarnan and Meghan
crew: Katie, Brittany, Randy, Tiarnan, Meghan, bucks, Randall, Cody, and Edgar
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)
Once a cook told me, “When Sharon said things would slow down after the summer, I didn’t realize that summer lasted until November!”. Well, it’s true–in my mind, the busy season begins when we start the sheep on the trail in mid-April and comes to an end when we ship the calves in the fall. The work doesn’t really end then–we still have to pregnancy-test the cows and trail the sheep to their winter country, but it really does slow down a lot. By now, all but the most die-hard hunters have gone, the sheepherders have gone back to their camps after a month or so around the ranch headquarters, and the cows are settling into their winter pastures. We still have some heifer calves to sell, but we have just put the steer calves on a truck. Their buyer is feeding them in Nebraska this winter. This means that we listen to several nights of mama cows calling for their babies, although the older cows know their calves are gone, and that their job is to nurture the calves in their bellies. We have few quiet nights this time of year, as we wean first the lambs, then the calves. We have a lot of guard dogs around until the winter bunches are settled in, so lots of barking accompanies the night song. Often the coyotes will taunt them, setting off a chorus of barking and howling that would put the Hound of the Baskervilles to shame. Soon enough, winter’s quiet will set in, with only the creaking of the ice and the caw of crows to break the cold silence.
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.