After lambing, we trail the ewes and lambs to grazing allotments on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forests, where they find green grass, fresh water, and bears and coyotes. The on-date is the first of July, and we stage the trailing, one day apart–one bunch after another. When the ewes, lambs and herders and settled on their summer grazing grounds, it is time for the yearling ewes to start on the trail. They have been grazing in the high desert Badwater pasture since shearing in late April. They follow the traditional trails, including the Savery Stock Driveway, to their high mountain allotment in the Medicine Bow.
Solano with his backpack
The yearling herder Alejandro likes to keep an orphan lamb each year, and raise it as a pet. This summer he has two bum lambs, including one which was lost on the trail and picked up by our neighbor, Jock–an avid bicyclist. Alejandro still has his pet from two years ago, Solano. I was startled to see that Alejandro had “repurposed” a dog food bag into a backpack for Solano. I’m not quite sure what he was meant to carry. Solano is quite the sheep. Sometimes he follows Alejandro on his horse, and sometimes he hangs out with the dogs or the sheep. I like to say that Solano is “no ordinary sheep.”
We’re almost done lambing and it’s time for docking the lambs and getting everyone ready for trailing and summer’s grazing on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forests. Sheep are naturally long-tailed, and if those tails are not cut short early in life, they can have problems later with manure and flies. The assembly line process also includes earmarking, castrating the males, vaccinating for diseases and a stamp with a paint brand. The ewes also receive a fresh brand and everyone is counted. We usually run two docking lines with all hands on deck, and bring up a hot lunch and plenty of cold drinks.
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 time for us to leave the Red Desert, as we do every year in mid-April. One bunch a day crosses a day apart for three days. This year road construction started on the third day, which meant to sheep had to be escorted by the pilot car. Since the railroad overpass can be dangerous and difficult, we were glad for the assistance. The ewes only have to travel about a mile and a half on WY Hwy 789 before they enter Rodewald’s pasture. Our neighbors, the Rodewalds, let us cross their private land to get to the Badwater Pasture, Shearing starts soon! (Photo credits to Meghan Lally and Linda Fleming
Today was a Goldilocks Day–not too hot, not too cold, and not windy at all. I took our banker, Kim Brown, from the Yampa Valley Bank in Craig, Colorado out to the Red Desert to take a look a the sheep. Conditions were perfect, with enough snow for the ewes to water on, but not so deep that they couldn’t access the dried grasses which we count on for winter feed. Everyone looked happy–the ewes, the bucks, the dogs, and Pepe, Leo and Guillermo.
Pepe unloading dog food–we buy a pallet a week
guard dog checking us out
a curious Hampshire ram lamb, also checking us out
It’s that time of year again. December rams mean May lambs. A sheep’s gestation is five months less five days, and usually we put rams into the ewe flocks on December 15th. A big snow storm was predicted for the 15th. Since some of the roads are scary, especially I80, we decided to haul bucks on the 14th.
The rams wait all year for these winter weeks. A ewe’s heat cycle occurs every three weeks, so we leave the bucks in for six weeks or so. The rest of the year, they are bachelors (except for the lucky few who get to hang out with the early lambers in October). For a few weeks, it’s all romance, all the time!
sheep grazing on the Routt National Forest–reducing wildfire, building soil
As international negotiators huddled in the last hours to hammer out an acceptable agreement, agriculture garnered little attention, except as a source of methane emissions. The need to produce 50 percent more food worldwide in the coming decades was hardly mentioned at all. Virtually no notice was given to wildlife and wildlife habitat enhanced by agricultural production. These are glaring omissions.
Fossil fuels, especially coal, were the crux of the negotiations.
Oil, gas and coal provides about 80 percent of all the energy used by human civilization. In China, it’s 88 percent (US Energy Information Administration). In the U.S., about 80 percent. The other big influencer is India, third in emissions and receiving 70 percent of its energy from coal alone.
India and China’s negotiators intervened in the last hours to water down language about reduction of fossil fuel use and subsidies to “phase down” from “phase out.”
Here’s a link to see the makeup of the delegations.
An emphasis was placed on deforestation, but other than an exhortation to plant trees, attention was not given to the role sound forest management has in sequestering carbon and managing water.
To the credit of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) they stated, “At COP26, governments recognized that soil and nutrient management practices and the optimal use of nutrients lie at the core of climate-resilient, sustainable food production systems and can contribute to global food security. It was also recognized that while livestock management systems are vulnerable to climate change, improving sustainable production and animal health can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing sinks on pasture and grazing lands. improving sustainable production and animal health can contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions while enhancing sinks on pasture and grazing lands.”
In the end, we believe our Solutions from the Land team of seven was highly effective. We communicated with folks high (John Kerry) and low (the lone delegate from Tajikistan) about the importance of agriculture and forestry, and its role as a solution to climate change.
If the goal of no more warming than 1.5 degrees centigrade has a hope of being met (we’re currently at 1.1), it will take all sectors. The solutions are not simplistic,
Cattle trailing off the Forest, after a summer of grazing management
Fall days are the time of year when the cattle and the sheep come down from their summer grazing on the the national forests. We bring them all to the Home Ranch, and sort them through the corrals. The ewes bring with them their whole entourage–herders, horses, Border collies, livestock guardian dogs. For a couple of weeks, we manage a rotating menagerie of sheep, dogs and–pigs? We keep a few feeder pigs over the summer to provide winter pork, but in the meantime the pigs consider themselves free-range critters who are likely to show up about anyplace. The guard dogs are suspicious of the pigs, but the pigs don’t care. I am reminded of “Babe” and wonder if we couldn’t train them to herd livestock. They are utterly indifferent to the dogs, who are puzzled by the pigs.
September 30 is the off-date for most of our Forest permits. Bridger Peak above Battle Pass is one of our highest grazing areas for the sheep in the summer. Alejandro takes the yearling ewes to the top of the Continental Divide. He had a flat tire on his wagon, so German changed the tire before we pulled the camp down the really rocky road to the highway. Alejandro shepherds the yearlings with the help of his border collies, his livestock guardian dogs, and his pet lamb, Solano. We saw snow on the Divide, and glorious fall colors on the trail down.
July 1st is the on-date for the forest permits where our ewes and lambs graze for the summer. While the ewes are lambing at Cottonwood, the yearling ewes hang out in the Badwater pasture, some 40 miles to the north. The ewes and lambs are usually settled on their permits for the summer by the 4th of July. The permit where the yearlings graze for the summer has an on-date of mid-July so it’s their turn to trail. Yearlings can move a lot faster than the five miles per day required by the federal agencies, so they usually move right along. This year was exceptional. Due to drought, very little water was available as we trailed. We discussed hauling water, which is difficult and expensive, but Alejandro said he’d rather make more miles and go from water to water. This meant that one day, the yearlings covered about 20 miles, which usually takes three days. They were tired, but really happy to see that reservoir. They are young and healthy and did fine, but I hope we don’t have to do it again. We rested them in our State Land pasture on the lambing grounds, which had feed and plenty of water, then pushed on to their summer permit. They spend the first few days on our neighbor’s private in-holding. We appreciate the extra grazing, and he values the reduction in grasses for wildfire protection. Alejandro did an excellent job in shepherding them through the dry country.
The reservoir’s in sight below Muddy Mountain
Trailing the yearlings onto their summer permit (Yes, that’s smoke in the air.)
Settled at last on Condict’s. That’s a smoke plume from the Morgan Creek Fire on the right.
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.