The rams hang around for ten and a half months, waiting for the day when they are called to go to work, fathering lambs for the next season. We put the bucks in over a period of days and weeks. We figure that the first bucks to go in with the ewes are getting tired, so we send reinforcements. They sometimes resent being worked through the chutes, but are happy to jump out of the trailers to join the ladies. When we were loading them, I said, “Hop in boys–all the corn you can eat.” Meghan said, “All the ladies you can breed!” I added, “…and all the wind you can tolerate.” Such is the life of a buck in the winter.
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Ideally, this time of year, we are done shearing and are on the trail to the lambing grounds, north of Dixon. It is critical that the ewes be sheared before lambing starts, yet this is proving increasingly difficult. It has a lot to do with the really dysfunctional H2A program in the Department of Labor, which facilitates the non-immigrant program for foreign agricultural workers. For us, this includes our valued and essential Peruvian sheepherders. For the shearing contractors, it allows them to hire highly skilled and highly paid sheep shearers, mostly from New Zealand, and sometimes Australia and other countries. The program has become so unwieldy that many shearing contractors have given up, and the remaining shearing crews are having difficulty in getting the wool off the ewes in a timely manner. This has resulted in a backup throughout the sheep herds in the Rocky Mountain West, and most producers, like us, are facing shearing during lambing–a process which is difficult for shearers, sheep producers, and is very hard on the heavily pregnant or recently lambed ewes. Nonetheless, here we are trailing ewes, still in the wool, to the lambing grounds, where we pray our shearing crew will show up very soon, and we pray that we will not have a loss of lambs to pay for the incoherent federal immigration politics.
Today we put the bucks into the ewes on the Red Desert. Bucks in on December 15th means that we can look for the first lambs to arrive on about May 10th. The bucks have waited for many months to be reunited with their lady loves. The ewes seemed glad to see them too, although for them, a brief–very brief–dalliance means that they spend five months pregnant and five months raising lambs. Of course, it guarantees the ewes a good living, and a whole lot less boredom than the rams face the rest of the year. We were blessed to receive a badly needed snow the day before, ensuring winter water for the sheep. It was a Goldlilocks snow–not too little and not too much, and the 15th dawned bright and sunny.
It’s that time of year, finally. The bucks have been waiting, sometimes patiently (spring) and sometimes not so patiently (fall), but after ten long months, it is time for them to join the ewes, thus ensuring a spring lamb crop. We took a load of blackface bucks to the Black Tie reservoir area at Powder Wash, where they joined the ewes there. We had an experience we hadn’t had before–the guard dogs puppies, born last spring and now ambitious adolescents, did not like the strange bucks joining the flock. They’d never seen rams before, and they correctly ascertained that the rams did not have honorable intentions. The barking and chasing did damper their lust, until we called the dogs in and convinced them that the presence of the bucks was OK. It’s been a dry early winter, but a snowstorm did come in today.
December 1st is the on date for our winter sheep grazing allotments on the Red Desert, north of I80 and Wamsutter, Wyoming. The sheep walk a five-day trail from our late fall pasture, Badwater, to the checkerboard Chain Lakes allotment, with the private owned by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. It also serves as critical winter habitat for antelope. We maintain the water and the fences, and provide “boots on the ground.” One band of sheep winters in Chain Lakes and two move on to the aptly named Cyclone Rim allotment. A few weeks ago, this blog showed photos of our search for water holes on Cyclone Rim.
We are still thirsty for snow and watering spots. For almost the first time ever, the sheep had dry days on the trail, although not back-to-back. Normally by this time of year, we have enough snow for the sheep to eat for water. They are very hardy, and most years go much of the winter surviving on snow and without access to fresh water. The sheepherders are asking us for snow, as if we could bring it like firewood and dog food. We tell them, “Do what we do, pray!”
The bucks will be turned in with the ewes in a few days, in order to bring those spring lambs. To make sure the ewes are in optimal condition, we decided to worm them in advance of bucking. On this day, it was coldish and windyish, but certainly a relatively pleasant day.
Often folks ask about the sheep wagons. In my view, they are a perfect example of form following function. The wagon has a 3/4 bed at the back, with storage underneath and a table that pulls out. Two bench seats are built along the sides, with more storage underneath. On the right front side is a wood burning and/or gas stove and on the left side is a low cupboard with a shelf for the water bucket on top. Hooks are located strategically for lanterns, and shelves behind the stove hold cooking pots and other utensils. Additional storage on the outside hold items like grain and horseshoeing tools. That wagon behind is the supply wagon, which holds firewood, hay, oats, horse blankets and other bulky items that are needed in the winter months. They are usually parked at ranch headquarters in the summer.
Above is a wagon being pulled by a team of horses. Less picturesquely, we move our wagons with pickup trucks, which calls for more fuel, but less labor.
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!
We have a farm flock of purebred Hampshire sheep. We lamb them out early (March) at Powder Flat, and raise our replacement bucks for the commercial herd from these ewes. They also produce replacement ewe lambs and some future lamb chops.
In late spring, usually mid-May, we truck them to the Bull Pasture, near the Home Ranch. They hang out there for a couple of weeks, then trail about 15 miles up to the Johnson Ranch, a private inholding in the Routt National Forest. There they spend the summer, growing and fending off bears and coyotes.
A few days ago ( and a couple of weeks earlier than usual), Meghan, Siobhan and granddaughter-of-the-heart Bahnay trailed them on up to their summer pasture. They (sheep, horses, dogs and ladies) really did walk all the way, but I caught them on their mid-day break.