We’re almost done lambing and it’s time for docking the lambs and getting everyone ready for trailing and summer’s grazing on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forests. Sheep are naturally long-tailed, and if those tails are not cut short early in life, they can have problems later with manure and flies. The assembly line process also includes earmarking, castrating the males, vaccinating for diseases and a stamp with a paint brand. The ewes also receive a fresh brand and everyone is counted. We usually run two docking lines with all hands on deck, and bring up a hot lunch and plenty of cold drinks.
It’s that time of year. We’re nearly through lambing, and now we need to dock all those baby lambs. This is to ensure their health and well-being in the future. We dock their tails, vaccinate, castrate and earmark. The whole process takes a few minutes, then the lambs run off to join their moms. We count, number and brand the ewes and check for health before trailing.
Lambing is closely followed by docking the new lambs. This means literally docking the tails, to protect against flystrike, earmarking and paint branding to indicate ownership, castrating to make management easier and to create better meat quality, vaccinating to protect health, and a look at each and every lamb for problems to address. It makes for long days, but also adds camaraderie and teamwork to our hard-working crew! A good lunch is sure to appear. No one has trouble sleeping at the end of the day
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
We had a surprise visitor at the last docking. Our neighbor, Harry Russell, 103, is a retired rancher. Harry docked many a lamb in his day, and enjoyed watching and offering the occasional word of advice. He was happy to take a bucket of lamb fries home.
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.