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.
Each fall we test the buck herd. Geri Parsons, Optimal Livestock Services, comes to check our rams for fertility and health. At the same time, we look at their teeth, their feet and their general condition to make sure they are ready to romance the ewes in a couple of months.
As our blog watchers know, we have had a horrific winter which made it hard to keep our livestock well cared for. This is the origin of the phrase “animal husbandry.” After a long and trying series of experiences, mostly weather related, we moved both the sheep and the cows to warmer climes. They are now coming home. We are in the season Still Winter/Almost Spring. The Coronavirus outbreak has affected our day-to-day lives less than many, but our big picture economic lives more than many. Still, we live in the day-to-day. We had sent most of our sheep, ewes and rams, to the Bighorn Basin for the winter. The early cold froze the sugar beets grown there, which meant that the beets couldn’t be harvested, but were frozen in the ground. As it happens, sheep can “graze” on sugar beets in the ground, and other crop aftermath. Spring is sort of coming and the deep snow is finally sort of melting. The farmers in the Bighorn Basin, where it is almost 3,000 feet lower in altitude, need to have their fields cleared of sheep so they can be ready to plant the 2020 crops. We began to be worried that the side-effects from Coronavirus would make it hard to bring the ewes several hundred miles south, and home. The truckers are busy hauling essential supplies, and sheep trailers especially are in short supply. What would happen if our sheep, men and dogs were stranded? We have some great trucker friends and were able to organize 17 trucks (same trucks, more than one trip). We had already brought some home earlier, but we had not figured on the unprecedented challenges of a Black Swan event.
ewes and rams
getting the truck ready
eager to go home
brand inspector on the job
Joel and Pepe
Tiarnan supervising (home school)
Pepe and our “landlord” Pasquel
Maeve serving her brownies (Grandma Laura’s recipe) after the last sheep is loaded–more home school
Kids at the confluence of the Little Snake River and Battle Creek
The kids have been swimming a lot this summer. Even though the water is low, due to drought, we have still made frequent visits to our swimming hole. As Battle Creek flows into the Little Snake, it scoops out a pool where the water is fairly deep and remarkably still. The other day, I was in Murdock’s and saw a “floatie” which was an “inflate-a-bull”. The object is to ride the plastic blow-up bull while your buddies shake the intertube attached to it. It looked like the perfect activity for the grandkids. Here’s a shout-out to the brave young man who climbed up to retrieve the last one which was blown up and hung high on the wall. The kids wasted no time in talking Megan into blowing it up without the benefit of a pump, and talking her into taking them to the swimming hole. The “Inflate-a-bull” was a big hit.
The week before, the kids devised a game in which Tiarnan and Rhen were “humans”, Maeve, Seamus and McCoy were mermen and -maid. The humans could capture the merpeople by hitting them with big globs of moss, which were abundant due to warm water temps. I was the “Queen of the Sea” and they were not supposed to throw moss at me. That part didn’t work out so well.
School has started and we had our first freeze this morning, so we’ll be lucky if we can get in another swim.
Our yearling sheep remain at Badwater after shearing, while the pregnant ewes trail on to the lambing grounds north of Dixon. The yearlings hang out there on the high desert until the bunches are made up and trailed to their summer grazing permits in the National Forests. Most years, we wait until after the Fourth of July and trail the yearling sheep south and east to their summer ground on the Medicine Bow Forest.
This year, due to extremely dry conditions in Badwater and on the trail, we decided to move the yearlings by truck. It took all day and into the night to get them all loaded, transported and unloaded. We were still unloading well after dark. and everyone made it safe and sound. Many thanks to our intrepid crew and neighbors who helped out!
Off the truck at Cottonwood.
Welcome to Cottonwood
unloading after dark
Seamus on the job
Cole and Autumn
Meanwhile (during the day), the boys played in the lambing shed.
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
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.
Guillermo, Tiarnan, McCoy, Rhen and Seamus bringing the bucks up
up the chute
Oscar and Guillermo loading the trailer
Oscar and Guillermo and the loaded trailer
last buck jumping out
Home at last! Here are the bucks with fresh hay in the Mouse Pasture.
Tim Terrill and his daughter Tate came today to shoe some horses to get ready for fall riding. He took time to show Seamus and our guests the finer points of preparing the shoes and shaping the hooves. We are located on the Continental Divide Bike Trail, and we had guests from England who were glad to see Tim at work. He happened to be shoeing a wild horse which we had adopted, so I explained the adoption program.
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.
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.