Daughter and mother,
my right-hand canine duo—
Cora and Sadie.
In the fall, we send lambs to the feedlot. These are the lambs that we have nurtured in the womb throughout the cold winter months. These are the lambs that we saw into the world in a cold wet spring. These are the lambs for whom we fended off coyotes and ravens and bears. These are the lambs who followed their mothers and grew on sweet summer grass.
Some of their numbers fell to predators. A few fell to the hundreds other hazards that await the creatures that we care for. Now we sort out the ewe lambs who will stay with us and become mama ewes. The others go to feedlots where others look after them. In a few months, they will go to slaughter and provide sustenance, by-products such as insulin, and pelts for all of us. The income they bring helps us continue the cycle of husbanding livestock and caring for landscape.
Our yearling sheep remain at Badwater after shearing, while the pregnant ewes trail on to the lambing grounds north of Dixon. The yearlings hang out there on the high desert until the bunches are made up and trailed to their summer grazing permits in the National Forests. Most years, we wait until after the Fourth of July and trail the yearling sheep south and east to their summer ground on the Medicine Bow Forest.
This year, due to extremely dry conditions in Badwater and on the trail, we decided to move the yearlings by truck. It took all day and into the night to get them all loaded, transported and unloaded. We were still unloading well after dark. and everyone made it safe and sound. Many thanks to our intrepid crew and neighbors who helped out!
It is hard to describe shearing season. It is essential, and ridden with uncertainty. The sheep must be shorn once a year in order to remain healthy and productive. The wool is a critical part of our income. And it is overwhelmingly important that the wool be shorn before lambing commences—a point that was brought home in 2015 when the scheduled shearers did not show up, and the problems of the season were exacerbated by weather and visa issues for the crews. We had to lamb in the wool, and organize a complicated shearing/docking operation in June.
Shearing of the range sheep herds is accomplished by contractors, who hire highly skilled crews (mostly foreigners, who need H2-A visas). It is a well-paid profession, but like most essential agriculture jobs, hardly filled by Americans. The contractors spend most of the non-shearing season vetting, hiring and completing paperwork so that they will have enough skilled, hard-working shearers to fill their crew.
The contractors seek to work for producers with a large number of sheep. This means that they don’t have to move as often, and are guaranteed a good period of work. Producers develop reputations for their facilities and respect for the crew, as well as proximity to amenities such as grocery stores and fuel.
Likewise, shearing contractors are known for their speed, care of the sheep and the wool, and above all, reliability. Producers value the good crews and strive to hire them. It is a dance every year, with the crews shifting as the situations change. Loyalty goes a long way for both partners.
This year our good California crew returned, and sheared our sheep in good order. We had luck that they were able to show up only a couple of days after our original target date. Sometimes the delay is many days, or weeks. Producers have to “stage” the sheep, since the shearing areas are usually at a fixed site, with usually “just enough” feed to support the sheep as they cycle through the shed.
In the old days, producers had large fixed sheds, which were designed to facilitate the movement of sheep and efficiency for the shearer. Most of these old Australian-style sheds are gone now, and the traveling crews have portable sheds which are basically small buildings on a trailer base. These are ingeniously designed to allow the sheep to enter a long chute from which the shearers (usually six or eight to a shed) can pull them to the shearing floor. After she is shorn, the ewe goes out a trap door to the left, while the wool slides out to the right. The wool handlers are waiting to sort and bale the wool just outside. Some crews have “sorting tables” to make it easier to skirt and bale the wool.
About 40 fleeces go into each bale, tamped down by a large ramrod into a rectangular wool bag. Bellies and tags (dirty short pieces) are baled separately, as are different types and grades of wool. The wool handlers, often women, are also skilled and must work fast to keep up with the shearers, who outnumber them.
The weather is a huge factor in all this. Wet sheep cannot be shorn. The wool quality is ruined if it is baled wet. Shearers won’t shear wet sheep because it can lead to “wool pneumonia”. Cold spring storms are a threat to recently shorn sheep. In a week or so, enough wool grows back to allow the sheep to have some insulation, but freshly shorn sheep are very vulnerable to cold, wet weather. A late April storm in 1984 killed a quarter million ewes in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Some of them were ours.
All that said, we are grateful that we got through the week it takes us to shear with relatively good conditions, a good crew and healthy sheep. We have to trail to the lambing grounds now with the main bunches. The two-year-olds are already under way lambing at our lambing sheds, so all hands are busy.
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!
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!”
The holidays are here,
the year is almost gone.
Sunset’s coming sooner.
Long nights, they linger on.
Christmas on the Ladder Ranch
Brings us gifts galore.
Family gathers ‘round us
While Yuletide fires roar.
Deep within the meadows—
Summer’s rush to green has passed.
Round bales stacked like coins,
Winter’s wealth, its shadows cast.
Fair weather birds have fled,
but winter sounds abound,
brave trills of chirping chorus
echo bird-song all around.
Coyotes add their yips and howls
and wail their eerie cries
which echo through the hills
making hackles rise
on man and beast alike.
Battle Creek glows with icy sheen.
The stream murmurs, cracks, groans—
add to winter’s subtle keen.
But here beside the fire,
with its crackle and its roar,
we’re warm and well and happy,
with all we need and more.
There’s children’s cheery laughter–
they cry and yell and shout,
like to scare the coyotes
as they run and tear about.
There’s cows and sheep and horses.
There’s canines large and small
dreaming Border collie dreams
and guard dogs watching all.
The cows must fill their bellies
with grass hay long since cut,
and raked and baled and scattered
‘long the tractor’s snowy rut.
They’ve calves to grow within them—
Throughout the winter’s cold
and await the season’s turning.
Winter Solstice comes and goes.
And ewes upon the desert
munching daily corn,
awaiting warmth in springtime
when their babies will be born.
In Battle Mountain’s folds
deer and elk have bedded down
in hollows under oak brush
there’s shelter that they’ve found.
We thank the Lord for blessings
for His creatures great and small
for all of those we care for–
Please Lord, bless us all!
We are grateful for our friends
and kin, found both far and near,
from Ladder Ranch to you and yours–
Merry Christmas! Yuletide Cheer!