The bucks have been waiting all year, or at least since February, to hang out with the girls again. They spend most of the year hanging out with each other, and plotting to escape from the buck pastures. At long last, breeding season has arrived and they can find romance. We sprinkle their wool with red powder to make it easier for the herders to count and identify them, load them into the trailer and take them to the pasture where the ewes are awaiting them. For the ewes, it means a very brief moment of passion, five months (less five days) of pregnancy, and four or five months of raising lambs. They probably find their lives to be a lot more interesting!
When I told folks that we were shearing sheep, the usual reaction was, “Whoa! Isn’t it a little early?”
It’s true that most of the sheep are shorn in late April (if all goes well), right before they lamb. Since we raise our own rams, we have two farm flocks of ewes–one Rambouillet and one Hampshire. These ewes lamb mostly in March. It helps a lot if they can be shorn before lambing. If a ewe feels a chill, she will take her lambs to seek shelter. If her belly is bare, it is easier for the lambs to find her nipples and get a first good meal of colostrum.
Shearing is always risky if the weather can turn cold. In 1984, a quarter of a million sheep in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas died after a long and severe April storm. A few days wool growth offers some protection. Our shearer, Cliff Hoopes of Hoopes Sheep Shearing, came with his shearer Jamie and nephew Kyle, wool handler. Cliff and Jamie used course blades, which leave some extra wool on the sheep.
We were blessed with several days of warmish weather, and got through with a good shearing. Thank you, Cliff and crew!
Meghan and Oscar bringing up the unshorn ewes
whiteface ewes waiting for the blade
blackface ewes waiting for the blade
Seamus on the job
Oscar at the chute
Time ropes the escaped wooly ewe
It’s not easy!
Back to the woolies
Siobhan and Raelyn capture the ewe
Siobhan: they went that-a-way
Siobhan, Maeve and Raelyn taking a break
The bucks were shorn too. (The red powder is their working clothes.)
The Hoopes Shearing Crew and the Ladder Ranch Crew
The days unfold–one warm dry sunny day after the next. The neighbors gather and talk of only one subject–when will it snow? We all have tales to tell. Only two years ago, we were lamenting because we had to start feeding hay two weeks before Thanksgiving. This year, some of us still have some rough feed we can use for the cows and horses–the tall dry grasses left under the trees that couldn’t be reached by the mower during haying season. Some have been feeding hay for months, after the summer pastures came up short and the fall pastures were used early. Some have shipped animals out because of the lack or expense of feed. Drought in the corn states and demand from ethanol have made corn–the staple of livestock feed–prohibitively expensive. The government’s mandates, and lack of action on disaster programs mean that the livestock sector has been sacrificed as farmers are being encouraged to grow fuel in place of food. Cattle and sheep, but also dairy (especially dairy!), poultry, hogs, and even catfish are being driven into loss as corn prices soar.
We continue on, unhampered by storms or ice or cold.
October is a month which starts with glorious colors as the leaves drop their summer green and segue into the yellows, reds and browns of a brief, glorious orgy. Now, as the month winds its way down toward Halloween, tans and greys prevail, as the trees stand bare and the fields lay fallow. In the last couple of days, we have had wet welcome snow. The growing season is long past, but after this record dry year, moisture is a miracle, and we hope a portent of things to come.
It is also a season of endings. After the burst of life that comes forth with the births of new lambs and calves, it is now shipping time. The lambs are being loaded onto trucks, destined for the feedlot in South Dakota, and the calves have been sold. Both will be fed until they are the right size to be slaughtered for food. We have also retained ewe lambs, which will become our replacement ewes next year, and sold replacement heifer calves, which will become someone’s cows. We also have replacement heifer calves, destined to become our future cows. Soon, all this season’s babies will be gone, or at least weaned, and we will go into our winter season with the animals who stay.
lambs in front f the cow barn
Pepe at the sorting chute
Edgar and Richar pushing the short term ewes up. They go to Iowa.
Edgar, Meghan, Filomeno and Richar at the loading chute
Filomeno working the chute
Meghan risking all to load the truck
Tiarnan and Pepe greet Maria
Cows, watching the calves being loaded
calves, bound for the feedlot
Ned inspecting the sold replacement heifers
heifer loading crew: Meghan, Dan, Gaylon, Eamon, Ned, Marley
Abby is hitching a ride toward Massachusetts on Dan’s truck
Late June brings our annual trailing from the lambing grounds, north of Dixon and Savery, to our Forest grazing permits on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forest. We start the sheep on the trail for the Colorado permits first, since it is a longer drive. All has to be planned throughout lambing and docking, so that the oldest lambs are in one bunch, and ready to go first. It is about 40 miles for the sheep who are heading for Farwell Mountain, near Columbine, Colorado.
We try to stage the sheep so that they are one day apart, which makes it easier to move the camps as we go along. We count the sheep through the government corrals on the Stock Driveway. This gives us an accurate count as we head into the Forest, and is required by the Forest Service as part of our permit rules and regulations.
It is also our last easy chance to corral the sheep and dock any lambs which have been born since the last docking, put paint brand numbers on the marker sheep, and pull out any bum lambs who need to go to the Home Ranch for TLC.
Once we leave the corrals, we are officially on our summer country (even though the Colorado bunches still have days ahead of them on the trail). It is time to face the bears!
working sheep at the Government Corrals
Pepe, Bahnay and Salomon putting numbers on the marker ewes
Salomon, sheep and guard dogs headed for Farwell Mountain
guard dog leads the way
Ewes drinking at the ditch near Three Forks
Filomeno on the job
almost to the Routt Forest
dust along the road
heading into a tinderbox
Modesto, Bahnay and Riley
Oscar at Haggarty Creek, Medicine Bow National Forest
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.