Ewes through the dodge gate,
dart left, duck right, straight ahead—
We raise our own replacement ewes from the best of our Rambouillet commercial ewes. We select about 1500 of these ewes, checking them for fine consistent wool, good body type, twinning, open faces, and other traits. The rest of the ewes, who are good but not as good, are bred to Hampshire (blackface) rams. We breed the replacement moms to the Rambouillet rams that we also raise.
When these lambs are born in May, they are more vulnerable to harsh weather conditions than the cross-bred lambs, who have hybrid vigor. The twin and triplet lambs are more at risk since their Mom has multiple lambs to care for. We have lambing sheds where we can give the ewes and their multiple lambs extra care and shelter. It is key to know which ewes are carrying the valuable and vulnerable twins and triplets.
Luckily for us, we can call on Optimal Veterinary Services to test our ewes mid-pregnancy. We set up our corrals, and Geri Parsons’ testing tent, on top of Cyclone Rim—a high range on the Red Desert. That’s where Avencio and his sheep are. The winter has been dry, so we have moved up chasing snowdrifts for water for the sheep. Geri, and her partner, Dr. Cleon Kimberling, “have lab, will travel”. Doc didn’t come this time (too far to ride his bike!), but we gathered employees and family members to work as the ground crew. We were lucky to have good weather with almost no wind—not always the case on Cyclone Rim!
Geri set up her tent next to the chute. As each ewe stopped, she checked them with an ultrasound machine, then called “single”, “twin”, “triplet”, and occasionally “open”! We then marked each ewe. The ewes pregnant with multiples will be sorted into a separate bunch when we shear in a few weeks. Then they will head to the lambing sheds for TLC.
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.
It’s a buck’s life. These boys only work six weeks a year, but it’s an important six weeks. Without them, we would have no baby lambs in the spring. Of course, it falls to the ewes to be pregnant for five months, and then to spend another five months or so raising lambs.
As for the bucks, they are ready for some rest. In a few weeks, they start looking for something to do, which usually involves trying to escape wherever we want them to be. They were glad to see the ewes on Cyclone Rim in mid-December, but now it’s time for them to leave the ewes and return to their bachelor ways. They go home the same way they left–one horsetrailer at a time.
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.
The ewes have made their annual trek north to the Red Desert, where we have wintering ground on the Cyclone Rim and Chain Lakes grazing allotments. These allotments are part of the vast Great Basin, home to Greater Sage Grouse, desert elk, riparian plants and amphibians, feral horses, many many antelope and, part of the year, cattle and sheep. The Great Basin is named because it is a closed basin. To the north, the Continental Divide splits and runs in separate ranges until it meets again about 15 miles south of Wamsutter near the Haystack Mountains. The country south of there–Church Butte, Adobe Town, Powder Rim–is likewise amazing landscape, but it is not part of the Great Basin, the Red Desert. It is always a relief when we safely cross the overpass over the Union Pacific line and the underpass beneath I80 and head out across the open country for winter pasture. We are a week later than usual on the trail north. We had to wait for snow, since there’s not much water on the trail. Like Goldilocks, we want it to be not too hot and not too cold!
Each fall, before the bucks join the ewes, we ask Optimal LIvestock Services to fertility check them. Renowned, and sort of retired Dr. Cleon Kimberling and his partner Geri Parsons bring their traveling lab to ranches around the West. Dr. Kimberling started this service when he was the extension sheep vet for Colorado State University. Back in the day, Dr. Kimberling would arrive with a crew of veterinary students. Dr. K would bicycle over the mountains from Fort Collins while the students drove the van. CSU no longer offers this service, but luckily for us, and others, Dr. Kimberling and Geri Parsons are keeping up the good work. He is still an avid bicyclist, and a working vet. Rhen was fascinated by the whole process, and told his parents that we had “preg tested” the rams.