Almost out of snow,
Last summer’s grass gives nurture,
Corn–but no water.
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.
We have started lambing the purebred ewes at Powder Flat. They are the moms of our future bucks and many replacement ewe lambs, and we lamb them earlier so these lambs will be older when it’s time for them to become working sheep. Our hard-working crew of Peruvian employees are supported by frequent visits from Meghan and her crew.
It’s that time of year when the long days of summer have come to an end. Since early summer, the cows and calves, and the ewes and lambs, have grazed the Forest. Their only responsibilities have been to gain weight and avoid predators. The cows have had the added task of consorting with bulls and getting pregnant.
Those days are gone, and it is now time for the calves and lambs to leave their mothers and move on to the next stage of life. The nights are noisy as the cows and ewes call for their departed offspring. The older moms probably give a sigh of relief as their mothering duties have been fulfilled for another turn of the seasons.
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!”