Every year we buy several loads of corn to feed to the ewes on the desert. We will put the rams in with the ewes in a couple of days, and it is important that their nutrition is optimal. Nothing is better than corn for flushing the ewes. In late November, we had the first load of corn delivered. Now, in almost mid-December, that load is almost gone, but the ewes have found it very tasty and nutritious.
The bucks will join the ewes on December 15th so that they will start lambing on May 10th. We want both the ewes and rams to be fat and happy for this occasion. We need snow (but not too much snow) because the sheep depend on it for winter water. They can survive by eating snow, and there’s not much live water on the Red Desert, especially during the frozen winter months. We also depend on feeding corn during the bucking season, which will last until the beginning of February–two heat cycles for the ewes. The government-mandated corn ethanol program has been devastating to the livestock sector, as it drove prices to new highs in 2013. Corn prices are down some, due to a bumper crop. In any case, there is no substitute for corn as a nutrition-packed supplement to support the ewes as they survive often harsh conditions, conceive lambs, and grow next year’s wool crop. It is amazing that they can convert desert grass to food and fiber for people!
As the year grows ever shorter, and the days wax with the passage of the winter solstice, the sheep are on their wintering grounds. Three bands are north of I80, where the ewes are keeping company with the bucks. This brings the promise of spring lambs, and gives particular meaning to the phrase “animal husbandry”.
The sheep are under the constant care of our Peruvian sheepherders, who make sure that they have fresh pasture (grasses left over from the summer), water, protection from the constant predators, and that they remain within the allotment boundaries set by the Bureau of Land Management.
Border collies on the Red Desert
We have been blessed, finally, with winter snow, which solves the water problem. We have mortgaged our future in order to buy corn to keep the sheep strong during the breeding season, and for the cold weather, present and future. As my Dad always said, “You can’t starve production out of an animal”–(not that I can imagine why one would consider it).
Today, Pat, McCoy (2) and I took supplies out the the sheepherders, and to Richar, the camptender who is responsible for feeding corn each day and making sure the herders have all they need. We took hay, firewood, coal, dog food, groceries, mail and new calenders.
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.