Why a sheep rancher never needs to go to Las Vegas


Shearing is risky: We could visit Wyoming's reservation casinos, but we choose to run sheep.

For us, the essential annual task -- shearing -- must happen during a particular moment in time. Our sheep recently left their Red Desert wintering grounds for the 80-mile trek to our lambing grounds. Ideally, the shearing crew shows up a couple of weeks ahead of lambing. The ewes' bellies are swollen with lambs, but they are not yet hard upon delivering their babies to the ground, to the sun and rain, to the green grass, to the coyotes and crows.

We dare not shear too soon, for a freshly shorn sheep is a sacrifice waiting to be given to the whimsical elements. She is vulnerable from the beginning to wet and cold weather, and for a couple of weeks to late season cruel freezing and windy weather. We gamble that the weather will gradually warm, and that the odds of a killer storm turn in our favor.

We wait too, on the shearing crews, who themselves are dancing an intricate dance from flock to flock -- trying to get the fleeces off in good order, trying to dodge and weave from dry bunch to dry bunch. By dry bunch, I mean that sheep must be shorn dry. There is no other way.

A shorn ewe will seek safe haven, bringing her lambs under the protection of a sheltering juniper, a cut bank, a sage windbreak. She will not have old greasy wool hanging from her belly, where an inexperienced lamb might mistake it for a milk-filled teat. She will not lie down to scratch, her fleece itchy on an unseasonably warm spring day, and slide onto her back, unable to rise.

So we wait for the shearers and hope that they arrive when we're past the danger of killer storms, but ahead of the time when the sack will bulge, the ewe will lie and push, and the wet lambs will sprawl new and mucousy on the bare earth.

If this window is missed, the ewe must trail for the lambing grounds, belly bulging with full-term lambs. She'll be carrying 10 pounds of fleece on her back, more if it's wet. And this shearing season has been very wet. In the midst of drought, we have had snow after snow, rain after rain. Our ewes followed the long trail down into the Badwater pasture, some 40 miles south, a year's worth of heavy fleece on their backs. We spoke with the shearing crew boss, cell phones crackling. 

“We'll start on Monday.” Monday it snowed, but of course we really hadn't expected to start that day. We never start on the planned date; that's just the way it always turns out. Wednesday morning dawned clear. The sheep were in the corrals, with the shearing shed -- a portable trailer -- set up. The crew sharpened their blades, started their generator and set to work. The fleeces rolled out one door, where skilled women sorted them in an instant and tossed them into a mechanical ram. A metal fist punched the fleece into a bale -- a plastic wrapped cube.

Thursday, we sheared again. Our crew, hard-working Peruvians as skilled as the shearers, kept the sheep coming one after another, into the corral, up the ramp, through the shed, and then out the chute to be counted, newly shorn and squirted with tick spray. My husband and daughter and I moved camp, made sure the next bunch would be staged, served lunch, hauled water.

Friday it snowed. Rain and snow were predicted for days, and we were still another 40 miles from the lambing grounds. We decided to push hard so we wouldn't be caught short before the lambs came. Rod, the shearing crew boss, made the decision to move his outfit 150 miles north, where dry sheep were waiting. The ewes, heavy with wool and heavy with lambs, limped along with mud the size of dinner plates clogging their feet.

As I write this, we are moving into the lambing grounds. The shearing crew has promised to show up tomorrow and finish the two-thirds of the bunch still carrying their wool. The due date for the first lambs is two days away -- we put the bucks in on Dec. 13, and a sheep's gestation is five months less five days. It snowed, rained, blew, thundered today, but a week's worth of good weather is predicted. We count on winning this bet.

Sharon O'Toole is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches near Savery, Wyoming.

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