The yearling ewes have wintered in the Powder Wash country. We decided to move them some 100 miles or so north, where the running age ewes have spent the winter. We need to have everyone (almost) together for next month’s shearing. We had to start early in the morning to get the trucks loaded and one their way.
loading the trucks at Powder Wash
ewe and lamb near the Bob Terrill corrals
yearling ewes waiting to load
rider keeping an eye on the yearlings
guard dog and yearlings, Powder Mountain
a girl and her dogs
horses and guard dogs, moving too
unloading at Cyclone Rim
yearling exiting the truck
making themselves at home at the Cyclone Rim base camp
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
In mid-December, we haul bucks out to the Red Desert so they may romance the ewes, thus guaranteeing lambs in May and June. “December rams bring May lambs” as the old saying goes.
Now it’s time to bring the rams home so that they may resume their bachelor lives, and create challenges until next December.
Here we are loading rams on the top of the aptly named Cyclone Rim. We are on the Rim seeking snow drifts for water for the sheep. The bucks are still in their working clothes (red powder) which will come off when they are shorn in a month or so.
The past two winters have been hard winters by anyone’s standards. Conditions were especially harsh on the Red Desert north of Wamsutter, where we winter our sheep. In 2018-2019, the ewes and bucks were snowed in on the Cyclone Rim allotment for weeks, and we couldn’t even get to the Chain Lakes allotment. In 2019-2020, the winter started early, so we found frozen sugar beets in the northern part of Wyoming and trucked the sheep to farms.
Now we are in drought. We have received around 65 percent of normal moisture so far this winter. An easy winter is easier on both livestock and herders, and on us as we drive back and forth to the sheep camps. The sheep depend upon snow for water for most of the winter. We’ve had several days of wind and thaw, which takes the snow and leaves bare sage and steppe. We now wait for a good winter storm, which we hope will bring much-needed moisture. Winter snow brings us spring grass.
We raise our own replacement ewes from the best of our Rambouillet commercial ewes. We select about 1500 of these ewes, checking them for fine consistent wool, good body type, twinning, open faces, and other traits. The rest of the ewes, who are good but not as good, are bred to Hampshire (blackface) rams. We breed the replacement moms to the Rambouillet rams that we also raise.
When these lambs are born in May, they are more vulnerable to harsh weather conditions than the cross-bred lambs, who have hybrid vigor. The twin and triplet lambs are more at risk since their Mom has multiple lambs to care for. We have lambing sheds where we can give the ewes and their multiple lambs extra care and shelter. It is key to know which ewes are carrying the valuable and vulnerable twins and triplets.
Luckily for us, we can call on Optimal Veterinary Services to test our ewes mid-pregnancy. We set up our corrals, and Geri Parsons’ testing tent, on top of Cyclone Rim—a high range on the Red Desert. That’s where Avencio and his sheep are. The winter has been dry, so we have moved up chasing snowdrifts for water for the sheep. Geri, and her partner, Dr. Cleon Kimberling, “have lab, will travel”. Doc didn’t come this time (too far to ride his bike!), but we gathered employees and family members to work as the ground crew. We were lucky to have good weather with almost no wind—not always the case on Cyclone Rim!
Geri set up her tent next to the chute. As each ewe stopped, she checked them with an ultrasound machine, then called “single”, “twin”, “triplet”, and occasionally “open”! We then marked each ewe. The ewes pregnant with multiples will be sorted into a separate bunch when we shear in a few weeks. Then they will head to the lambing sheds for TLC.
Cora and Sadie on the job
view from the back
guard dog on the job
Siobhan and Tiarnan sorting
Tiarnan in Geri’s chute
Siobhan at the chute
Tiarnan with the sorting flag
Pat and Tiarnan behind the sheep
Meghan and Oscar working the chute, Geri’s tent in place
It’s a buck’s life. These boys only work six weeks a year, but it’s an important six weeks. Without them, we would have no baby lambs in the spring. Of course, it falls to the ewes to be pregnant for five months, and then to spend another five months or so raising lambs.
As for the bucks, they are ready for some rest. In a few weeks, they start looking for something to do, which usually involves trying to escape wherever we want them to be. They were glad to see the ewes on Cyclone Rim in mid-December, but now it’s time for them to leave the ewes and return to their bachelor ways. They go home the same way they left–one horsetrailer at a time.
Guillermo, Tiarnan, McCoy, Rhen and Seamus bringing the bucks up
up the chute
Oscar and Guillermo loading the trailer
Oscar and Guillermo and the loaded trailer
last buck jumping out
Home at last! Here are the bucks with fresh hay in the Mouse Pasture.
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.