It’s that time of year again. The shearers have shown up and shearing is underway. Each year it takes a lot of moving parts for fleeces to roll off the sheep and into the big bales. Our shearing crew are contractors who come out of California. We are their last client of the season. This is good because they are not under pressure to move on to the next producer, but nerve-wracking because we want to have the ewes shorn in time to trail to the lambing grounds north of Dixon. Lambing starts around May 10th.
We were fortunate with the weather this year. We had a snowstorm right before we were ready to start. The weather cleared and was warmish and nice for most of the week, allowing us to get through the “main line,” as the wool buyers call the running age ewes. The yearlings were next, followed by a brief, but not killer storm–always a worry for freshly shorn sheep.
Our crew packed up their portable shed–the shearing equivalant of a food truck–and moved to Powder Flat. The early lambers and the rams were there, and soon they too had given up their winter coats. Beulan and Maria the llamas were also shorn, much to their spitting disgust, but they are ready for summer.
It’s branding time! We have lots of baby calves who need brands, eartags and vaccine so that they can be ready to head to the National Forest next month with their mamas. We have a great crew this year, which includes a lot of home-grown child labor. Sheep Mountain is a pasture which we graze spring and fall. Sheep Mountain itself is an extinct volcano which has provided us with rich soil and great pasture.
Megan and Eamon discussing her future run at the NFR
We know how to have a good time on a Saturday afternoon. Eamon borrowed Ed Buchanan’s roping dummy on wheels. He pulled it with the four-wheeler, giving McCoy, Tiarnan, Rhen and several adults the chance to practice their roping. A good time was had by all!
Today, we gathered, trailed and sorted cattle in the Powder Wash. It was a great home-schooling experience for Siobhan, Tiarnan, Rhen and Seamus (helping but camera-shy!). We were joined for a time by three young mustang stallions, evidently kicked out of their herd and looking for friends.
Are they or aren’t they. The heifers are headed in to be pregnancy tested. We are lucky to have to two veterinarians in our community–Drs. Ben and Hallie Noland. Four-year-old Rhen calls Ben “Doctorbennoland” and the good doctor came to check out the heifers. McCoy, six, was mad because Rhen got to help while McCoy had to go to first grade and miss out out on the excitement.
It is hard to describe shearing season. It is essential, and ridden with uncertainty. The sheep must be shorn once a year in order to remain healthy and productive. The wool is a critical part of our income. And it is overwhelmingly important that the wool be shorn before lambing commences—a point that was brought home in 2015 when the scheduled shearers did not show up, and the problems of the season were exacerbated by weather and visa issues for the crews. We had to lamb in the wool, and organize a complicated shearing/docking operation in June.
Shearing of the range sheep herds is accomplished by contractors, who hire highly skilled crews (mostly foreigners, who need H2-A visas). It is a well-paid profession, but like most essential agriculture jobs, hardly filled by Americans. The contractors spend most of the non-shearing season vetting, hiring and completing paperwork so that they will have enough skilled, hard-working shearers to fill their crew.
Ewes coming in to the corrals
The contractors seek to work for producers with a large number of sheep. This means that they don’t have to move as often, and are guaranteed a good period of work. Producers develop reputations for their facilities and respect for the crew, as well as proximity to amenities such as grocery stores and fuel.
Likewise, shearing contractors are known for their speed, care of the sheep and the wool, and above all, reliability. Producers value the good crews and strive to hire them. It is a dance every year, with the crews shifting as the situations change. Loyalty goes a long way for both partners.
bringing in the ewes
This year our good California crew returned, and sheared our sheep in good order. We had luck that they were able to show up only a couple of days after our original target date. Sometimes the delay is many days, or weeks. Producers have to “stage” the sheep, since the shearing areas are usually at a fixed site, with usually “just enough” feed to support the sheep as they cycle through the shed.
Luka and Riley helping in the chute
In the old days, producers had large fixed sheds, which were designed to facilitate the movement of sheep and efficiency for the shearer. Most of these old Australian-style sheds are gone now, and the traveling crews have portable sheds which are basically small buildings on a trailer base. These are ingeniously designed to allow the sheep to enter a long chute from which the shearers (usually six or eight to a shed) can pull them to the shearing floor. After she is shorn, the ewe goes out a trap door to the left, while the wool slides out to the right. The wool handlers are waiting to sort and bale the wool just outside. Some crews have “sorting tables” to make it easier to skirt and bale the wool.
wool packing crew hard at work
About 40 fleeces go into each bale, tamped down by a large ramrod into a rectangular wool bag. Bellies and tags (dirty short pieces) are baled separately, as are different types and grades of wool. The wool handlers, often women, are also skilled and must work fast to keep up with the shearers, who outnumber them.
Kimmy, Uribe, Luis and David on the job
The weather is a huge factor in all this. Wet sheep cannot be shorn. The wool quality is ruined if it is baled wet. Shearers won’t shear wet sheep because it can lead to “wool pneumonia”. Cold spring storms are a threat to recently shorn sheep. In a week or so, enough wool grows back to allow the sheep to have some insulation, but freshly shorn sheep are very vulnerable to cold, wet weather. A late April storm in 1984 killed a quarter million ewes in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Some of them were ours.
All that said, we are grateful that we got through the week it takes us to shear with relatively good conditions, a good crew and healthy sheep. We have to trail to the lambing grounds now with the main bunches. The two-year-olds are already under way lambing at our lambing sheds, so all hands are busy.
Ciro and Pepe
shearing the black ewes
Uribe and Megan unbelling the black ewe
Rhen helping in the chute
Rhen and Cora pushing the ewes up
Rhen practicing mutton-busting with Uribe
Edgar pushing ewes along the chute in the shed
Maeve and Seamus playing “Throw Dirt at the Sibling While Guessing the Wind Direction”
Guard dogs with shorn ewes
McCoy, Eamon, Gramps and Pat
Meghan and Eamon conferring
Riley’s lunch for corral crew and shearing crew–a welcome sight!
Siobhan and Luka in the shed
Karen with Cora and Sam–“Come early,” I said. “It’ll be fun!” I said…and it was.
January cake for Sharon, our neighbor Nikki, and Brian
The past few days have seen several birthdays, so we had a communal birthday party. Here is the cake that Megan made for the occasion. Nikki decided to stay home with her new baby, but her husband John came and we celebrated a combined 142 years of living. We had some discussion of the arrangement of candles.
Today, Tiarnan and I took a walk through the snow. He’s another Aquarian with a Valentine birthday.
It’s that time of year when we bring in the livestock–the cows and calves, the ewes and lambs–the time when we finish our summer’s work and prepare for the winter season. We sell most of the calves, and send many of the cows to less snowy pastures for the winter. Some of the cows will go to our friends’ ranch near Laramie (where the snow is horizontal rather than vertical), Some will go to Nebraska. This means we bring them all in to the Home Ranch, work them, and load some of them on trucks.
First, we need horses
Ready to bring them in
And we need a crew–Eamon
Meghan and Peruanito
Siobhan and Taylor
McCoy checking things out
Rhen on the job
Megan and Jeff
Our neighbor John may be a belts and suspenders kind-of-guy
It’s that time of year. In order for our calves to be born in a timely manner next spring, the cows must become pregnant now, or soon. Most of them will manage this in the traditional way, which involves a close, if brief, relationship with a bull–preferably one of our choosing. Some of the cows will have a close encounter with a straw of bull semen. What this encounter lacks in romance it makes up for in the quality of the afore-mentioned semen. Artificial insemination allows us to breed the cows to bulls which have been carefully selected for characteristics we like, while not having to buy and support very high-priced bulls. If, for some reason, the cows do not respond to the attention of Adam, Megan and Hallie–well–there’s always the actual bulls who are willing to work to ensure a spring calf crop!
Getting the cows ready for artificial insemination
Megan and Nikki bringing up the cows.
Sam, our Wyoming Stock Growers Association intern, on the job
Branding season commences. We have most of our baby calves on the ground. We have to pick the right days for branding–after the calves are big enough to not be too stressed, but not so big that they will cause the branding crew too much stress. These calves have reached that “Goldilocks Moment”. In the last few days, we have branded one set of calves on the Home Ranch, and one set of calves in the desert at the Powder Flat Headquarters. We even had a photographer from the Library of Congress, Carol Highsmith, to document the great American branding. As usual, we had child labor on hand.
Nikki roping calves
Mike Buchanan, McCoy and Rhen ready to go to work
Cow and calf–at the ready
Rhen and Mara, on the job
Meanwhile, back at the Powder Flat Ranch…
Nikki holding the calf
Nikki, Megan, Mike Pierce and Jill wrestling a calf
Eamon with the irons
Mike B. and Mike P. branding a calf with help from Kate
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.