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
It’s that time of year again. December rams mean May lambs. A sheep’s gestation is five months less five days, and usually we put rams into the ewe flocks on December 15th. A big snow storm was predicted for the 15th. Since some of the roads are scary, especially I80, we decided to haul bucks on the 14th.
The rams wait all year for these winter weeks. A ewe’s heat cycle occurs every three weeks, so we leave the bucks in for six weeks or so. The rest of the year, they are bachelors (except for the lucky few who get to hang out with the early lambers in October). For a few weeks, it’s all romance, all the time!
Crunching as the calf dives into dry willows
“Quakey” aspens rustle up autumn, leaves flutter to the ground
“Hup, hup!” I holler, trying to spook the calf out of the willows
A thump on the ground as I dismount, followed by
more crunching as I thrash through the willows
A sigh as I realize the calf has somehow escaped me
“Hey there, pretty baby” as I push the filly aside
“Stand still, I said” to my mare as I mount
We sit very still, listening
to low bird song and the chuckle of aspen
but not the bawl of a calf
“Hey, you guys OK?”—our cowgirl come back to see what’s taking so long
“Holy cow, look at that!”
A smoke plume silently rises, signaling the faraway
crack and crash as molten trees succumb
as animals dash madly from the deadly flames of the Mullen Fire
Another sigh—of relief—that the blaze is far away
“That calf caught up”
The quick clop of hooves as we trot up to the herd
“Come by! That’ll do!” Reluctantly the Border collie drops back
Mooing—meaning “get over here and stay by me”
Whinnying as the filly realizes her mom and I have moved to the lead
Clip-clopping as she races past the cows to catch up
They watch, knowingly
The distant rumble of cars, trucks, RV’s
The flash of my gloved hand
“Just go slowly. The cows will move. Watch the calves”
Finally, the clank of chain and squeak of gate
as the cows and calves slip through
to green grass
The dark settles, birds silent
July 1st is the on-date for most of our sheep grazing permits on the National Forest. We have to stage them on since we have several bunches which graze on federal permits in the summer, and it is the on-date for our neighbors as well. They usually trail one day apart so we go up the line and move each camp to the next spot until everyone is settled
There is always a grateful sigh when we know we are through lambing, through docking and through trailing. The next challenge is withstanding the predators which view our ewes and lambs as tasty snacks, especially in a year when the deer population is low. My Dad’s cousin once said, “Well, you’re up there in the nice cool flies.”
Now we are up in the “nice cool bears.”
We have grass and we have water. The grazing greatly reduces the fuel load and the fire danger. We are worried about fire in this year’s drought conditions. So it begins.
Pulling the wagon and flagging the sheep up the road
It’s springtime and the livin’ is crazy. After hunkering down for the winter months, we are moving livestock from winter pasture to spring pasture. We are lambing, calving and trying to get all of our livestock charges to where they need to be for the change of seasons. We trucked the yearling ewes, and a few older ewes, from their wintering grounds at Powder Wash to the Badwater pasture. We are seeing the Akaushi cross calves on the ground, after last year’s decision to try these Wagu-type bulls on our Angus heifers. The calves sure are pretty and we’re excited to see what they look like as they grow up.
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.
Rhen on the chute after guiding his Dad who was backing up the truck.
Sometimes we have multi-species days. Pat, Eamon, Rhen and Sharon headed to Powder Flat to load heifers on trucks so we could move them to spring country north of Dixon. We are full-on lambing at the Powder Flat headquarters, so there was plenty going on there already.
Each March, we lamb our purebred ewes, Hampshire and Rambouillet, in the sheds at Powder Flat. We raise our rams for the commercial range ewes from these two farm flocks. Luckily, we have a good crew and the early weather has been mild.
October 1st is the off-date for our summer grazing permits on the national forests. We spend a lot of time staging the trailing off of both cows and sheep. We consolidate sheep bunches, move them onto private pastures, and bring every ewe and lamb through our corrals and sheep chutes at the Home Ranch. We sort the lambs off the ewes. Some lambs will go to a feedlot to gain more pounds, and some will stay home and become replacement ewe lambs.
The ewes are sorted several way. Ewes with good health and good udders stay with our bunches. The “good old ewes” who are short on teeth but otherwise sound will go to buyers, usually in the Midwest, who can care for them for several more years, in conditions more forgiving than Wyoming’s Red Desert. The “killer ewes” or culls will go to slaughter.
All this involves a lot of moving parts, but when we’re done, we’re ready to move onto other late fall pastures before the long trail to the wintering grounds.
Tiarnan helped tend two sheepcamps. We drove two and a half hours to Shirley Basin, where Guillermo is tending the bucks (well away from the ewes!). We took a back road through several gates, a muddy slough (didn’t get stuck, but it was a near thing) and a “Beware of Radiation” sign. On the way home, we left water for Leo in the Medicine Bow National Forest. I was lucky to have Tiarnan as a helper guy and good company!
Tiarnan filling the water bucket at Guillermo’s camp.
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.