The past two winters have been hard winters by anyone’s standards. Conditions were especially harsh on the Red Desert north of Wamsutter, where we winter our sheep. In 2018-2019, the ewes and bucks were snowed in on the Cyclone Rim allotment for weeks, and we couldn’t even get to the Chain Lakes allotment. In 2019-2020, the winter started early, so we found frozen sugar beets in the northern part of Wyoming and trucked the sheep to farms.
Now we are in drought. We have received around 65 percent of normal moisture so far this winter. An easy winter is easier on both livestock and herders, and on us as we drive back and forth to the sheep camps. The sheep depend upon snow for water for most of the winter. We’ve had several days of wind and thaw, which takes the snow and leaves bare sage and steppe. We now wait for a good winter storm, which we hope will bring much-needed moisture. Winter snow brings us spring grass.
Most years, we set out on the sheep trail to the wintering grounds on about the same date. It is usually about a five- or six-day trail from our late fall pasture at Badwater to our winter grazing permits in the Red Desert. We leave around Thanksgiving time–grateful that the ewes have come south on the same trail in the spring, met the shearers. trekked to the lambing ground, borne and raised lambs, grazed on the forest, trailed back to the Home Ranch corrals, weaned their lambs, and now head north to winter pasture. It is usually a time when we can take a breath. We pray that the winter is not too hard, that the dry grass is enough to sustain the ewes, and then the rams, as the cycle begins anew.
following the tractor
This year, back-to-back blizzards hit soon after the first two bunches of sheep set out. Some days they have been stranded on the trail and it has been all we can do to reach the sheep and the herders with supplies. The Interstate has been closed, with multiple wrecks and even some deaths. We crossed two bunches in between storms, but have struggled to move them north, breaking trail with the tractor. The weather has paused between storms, allowing us to make progress. We are grateful that the storms have not been unrelenting.
We had to turn south with the last bunch. Their winter pasture on Chain Lakes is snowed under, and we’ve found another, more open, allotment to the south and west. We are trailing down the highway, which must confuse the ewes, whose instinct and habit is to head north. Since we are on the highway, and not the cross-country trail, we flag, fore and aft, to slow the oncoming traffic. Locals are also not used to seeing livestock on the road this time of year, and non-locals are mostly interested to see the sheep, the dogs, the herders and the family members.
The sheep north of the interstate are still struggling to get to Cyclone Rim. They have finally made it to a plowed road, but it is slow going due to all the trucks stuck as they try to reach the energy development in the same areas.
Eamon and Guillermo bringing up the sheep
almost to the gate
Eamon, ready to trail
Wagon, waiting for the day
View from the rear flagger
Wilber and Guillermo putting in at the 18 mile marker
For us, rain, sleet, snow or shine, March always comes in like a lamb. We raise our own rams, Hampshire and Rambouillet, and the ewes start lambing March 1st. After the winter wait, the long months of lambs growing in the womb, we get to see these babies. With them lies our future. Their future, likewise, depends upon us. It is a long time between lambs on the ground and rams, dusted with iron oxide, jumping out of the horsetrailer to join the ewes, starting the cycle anew.
In the shed
Ladies in waiting, protected by guardian dog puppies
ewes and puppies
Oscar helping a lamb find a mom with a skin graft
Edgar and Oscar conferring
plenty of feed on hand
Oscar with his lambing crew, Tiarnan and Seamus
Babies in a box, waiting for milk replacer, or a new mama
Pat’s birthday present was a new set of lenses for his iPhone. Here’s some photos he took at Powder Wash trying out the new lenses. Watch this space for future pics.
If the blackface and some of the whiteface ewes look roundish in these photos, that’s because they will start lambing in a month or so. You can also see how little snow there is. The winter continues to be warm and dry, and we continuously check the weather report for promises of snow. My Dad always said that a wet spring beats a hard winter, so we can hope!
ewes on the feed line
Which one of these is not like the others? (Hint–look at the color of the ears.)
Every year, we end up with a number of bum (orphan) lambs. They are motherless due to a variety of circumstances. Some ewes have more lambs than milk. Sometimes a ewe dies, leaving an actual orphan. Some lambs are weak, or injured, or just lost.
We sometimes are asked why these motherless lambs are called “bums”. It’s because they are “bumming” milk from their compatriots, or at least the most successful ones do.
This year, we have ended up with more bums than usual, partly due to our decision to lamb all the almost two-year-old ewes in the sheds. They did produce more lambs than milk. These are lambs that might have died on the range, so we are glad to have them back at the Home Ranch. This year, we decided to go all in, and raise them in an “organized” manner.
Raising bum lambs involves a lot of extra time, labor and money, as we purchase lamb milk replacer, which costs somewhat more than illegal drugs. This year, our efforts to supplement the lambs has been aided by Lady, the livestock guardian dog mom. We put her and her seven puppies with the multitudes, figuring it would be a good bonding experience for lambs and puppies alike.
Little did we expect that Lady would take her responsibilities so seriously.
Lady nursing two of her puppies and two of her lambs
I spoke too soon when I said the winter was just about right, and that we wouldn’t need more additional feed on the Red Desert. We have since had lots of snow and wind. In the mountains, where we live, we have had LOTS of snow. On the Red Desert, where most of the sheep are wintering, we’ve had snow and wind. This is usually a good combination, since the wind opens up the underlying grasses, but this year we’ve had enough snow to cover up the feed. At the Home Ranch, we’ve had enough snow that the tractors have been getting stuck, making it hard to feed the cows. Today, Eamon hauled extra feed to the ewes, and we’ve had folks in to unstick the tractors. All the animals have been fed, thanks to lots of time of effort on the part of family and valued employees.
Guard dog looking out for elk
feeding the Central Boiler
You can see where the elk have been lovin’ our haystack!
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.
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.
Sharon's father George, 89, passed away December 25, 2010. He lived much of his life in the house where he was born, and remained active in the day-to-day life of the ranch. Mr. Salisbury was a decorated World War II veteran, a former member of Wyoming's House of Representatives, and former President of Wyoming's Board of Agriculture.
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 also served on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture, and she and Brian are active in community service. Daughter Bridget lives in Denver with her husband, Chris Abel, where she works in public relations and he serves agriculture in the food 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 nurse.
The blog traces the activities and life on the ranch, from the mundane to the fabulous.