Every year at this time, we are almost there with the final leg of our 150 mile trek as the sheep trail from their summer country in the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests to winter pasture in Wyoming’s Red Desert. Each way, spring and fall, we must cross the overpass across the Union Pacific line, and the underpass below Interstate 80–both coast to coast trails of a different sort. We make this part of the trail on WY Highway 789. For several miles, we share the highway with cars, pickup trucks and trailers, motor homes, and semi trucks hauling everything from livestock to oilfield supplies. We flag the road, ‘fore and aft, to warn traffic that the sheep are on the highway. We’ve only had a few near wrecks over the years, due mostly to inattentive or inexperienced drivers, and sometimes bad weather. Mostly we see our neighbors, who wait and wave, fellow travelers, and folks who stop and take photos and ask questions. I always send up a prayer of thanks when sheep, dogs, horses and humans have safely threaded the needle, and are on their way to the Red Desert. Then I pray for a good winter, good feed and a good living for all.
at Rodewald’s gate
Jean Carlos on the run
Filo on the railroad bridge
passing the Fireworks Stand
sharing the road
Prima Express–dos direciones
Ovcharka livestock guardian dog sees them through the gate
trailing crew–Rhen, Pepe, McCoy and Pat
more crew–Pepe, Tiarnan and Meghan
Tiarnan and Modesto headed north on adopted wild horse
Tiarnan and Rhen went with me to move sheep camp on Tennessee Creek in the Routt Forest. Jean Carlos was happy to see the boys and fed them a hearty lunch of spaghetti, vienna sausage and mixed vegetables. They were hungry. After pulling the camp down a very rough and narrow road, Jean Carlos gave Tiarnan a ride. In spite of the bouncy trip, Rhen had somehow fallen asleep, and was mad when he learned he had missed a ride on the horse. We then went on to Clark for some of their famous ice cream.
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!”
Pepe, Richard, Meghan, Oscar, Cassie, and Jean Carlos on the docking side of things
This must be the February thaw.
It follows the January thaw, except
not much snow fell between
Aquarius and Pisces.
How will we know Spring?
Heifers on dry ground
she thinks she’s hiding
As storms pound the East Coast, and snow in Boston piles up, we watch our drifts melt away. We depend on snow for winter water for the sheep, and to bring summer moisture for everything. At Powder Flat, all our livestock are watering at reservoirs and wells.
The ewe lambs and old ewes still have a little snow below Lower Powder Spring
The purebred ewes watering at Powder Flat
The ewes watering below the Spring
leaving the water hole
through the waterhole fence
Jean Carlos and Pat talk about water, with input from the dogs
Each year, our friends Rodney and Janet Fleming come for a visit from Iowa. It is a true busman’s holiday. The Flemings raise sheep in Iowa, and they come to see us so that they may visit sheep camps, participate in general ranch work and visit about dogs and sheep. They also pick out a couple of ram lambs to take home to their ewes in Iowa. We raise both Hampshire and Rambouillet rams to breed to our own commercial ewes. This gives us the opportunity to select for the traits we want, and that the rams, who have never been pushed on grain, are hardy when it comes time to go to work under sometimes tough conditions in Red Desert winters.
Meghan and Rodney bringing up the Hamp buck lambs
Jean Carlos coming to help with his entourage of guard dog puppies
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.