Monday, May 6, 2013

[Sweetwater Series] a day at sheep camp

Welcome back to the Sweetwater Series, click here to check out the other sights around my new home. Sweetwater County is approximately 10, 425 square miles and is 73% public land. The high mountain desert landscape lends itself well to both natural resource production and rangeland agriculture production.

Agriculture is a big part of the economy. As of the 2007 Agricultural Census, Sweetwater County Agriculture produced $14,506,000 worth of agricultural products with $10,163,000 coming from livestock and livestock products. Last week I visited sheep camp with one of the larger ranchers in southwest Wyoming.

The sheep are currently on the trail to shearing, lambing and then summer grazing lands. They travel walk somewhere between 6 and 10 miles per day, depending on how close the next available water is and how much feed is available. It is normal for range sheep operations to feed corn and/or pellets for a few weeks before lambing and bucking to get give the ewes a little extra boost before the stressful time of the year; however, this year many herds got additional corn because the lack of feed has been very hard on them. The continuing, severe drought continues to take its toll on both the livestock and those that their care is charged to.

Most of the range sheep operations split their herds into bands of approximately 1500 to 2000 head of sheep per band, with each band there is a variety of both herd dogs and guard dogs, a team of draft horses, saddle horses, 2 herders, a sheep camp wagon and a feed wagon. The size of the bands will sometimes depend on weather conditions. For example during the drought, many bands were made smaller because its easier to haul water to smaller bands than the larger ones.

As we came into camp we were greeted by the

who also happens to be the watchman. Its interesting that the guard dogs, bonded to the sheep and trained to protect them against intruders and predators, don't really bother people who come into the camp. They come over and make sure you know who is boss around camp, but then go about their business. A variety of dogs are used as guard dogs in this area, but this particular rancher uses Great Pyrenees.

Here is a typical sheep camp, equipped with solar panels, a stove, bed, "kitchen" and a bathtub. I was really interested to know how often herders bathe. Its good to know that they can bathe everyday if they want to. They have a little tub (think Laura Ingalls) and they can melt snow or use water that is brought by the rancher every few days, heated on the stove or campfire. 

A team is utilized to pull both the sheep camp and the feed wagon to the next spot on the trail. Sometimes, like we did today, the rancher will pull the sheep camp, by pickup, to the next spot while the herder follows with the feed wagon and the sheep. Below, one of the team and the sheep are getting a healthy breakfast of corn before they make the 8ish mile trek to the next water, the Green River.

Herders are usually H2A workers from South America or Nepal. Nearly all of my ranchers are at the very least bilingual. I have one who can fluently speak 7 languages. I'm signed up for a Spanish tutor at sheep camp! 

The herders, the sheep, the dogs, and the horses are out on the range 365 days a year, rain or shine. I find this type of operation to be the last of the true American West and I find to be extremely fascinating. I hope that through this series a few more people (myself included) can begin to follow what exactly these ranchers (and herders) do for us to enjoy the food choices that we have in this country.

I've thought about doing a "Ask a herder" there anything you want to know about the range sheep operations?


  1. This is awesome, Jen! This sheep farmer loves it! First off, the Western Skies photo? Breathtaking. Perfect quote. Second, do they call it ''lambing and bucking'' because I have been around sheep my whole life and never heard it called that. Interesting. Third, I love me a great pyranese dog. Love. The feedlot we used to see animals had one when I was a kid. We use a llama instead, so not nearly as cute!


  2. It's always so interesting to hear about different agriculture than I'm used to with our cows. I'm always fascinated with learning about different things in ag!