Diary of a New Sheepherder

Laura Hicks

Okay, a little background first so you know where Iím going with this article. I have spent my whole life on a cattle ranch. I was born on one and I hope I will be able to die on one. But being an adventurous soul, I decided Iíd try my hand at raising sheep. So I chose to start out with a fairly "small" bunch so I could get my feet wet before jumping fully into the pond. I talked my banker into taking the plunge with me (of course sheep were worth something last spring) and I bought a little over 100 head of bred, white-faced, range ewes. Most of these were 3 year olds. Didnít want to start my experience with lambing out yearlings and weíve never had much luck breeding back 2 year old heifers so I figured 3 year olds would be the best in the ewes also!

The trucker unloaded them on March 16th, 2001. I stood in awe of what looked like a bunch of woolly, hump less camels. Of course I had my husband, Mike, and one of my dogs, Whit, to help us unload and put them in the corral to settle in for awhile.

First lesson learned really quick! We donít have facilities to hold sheep in very well. So we unloaded them in the open and moved them into the corral. I really donít have a clue of how people raise sheep without good dogs now. If we hadnít had Whit there, Iím sure we would have been out of the sheep business that first day. The trucker started shoving sheep off the truck. I also found out that sheep donít like to be the first one out of or in to anything. The first one came and for some reason the rest didnít follow. So here we are with one ewe standing on the portable loading chute and Mike (thinking cattle) shoos her off. There we stand with a single ewe in unfamiliar territory. She takes off. All I can think is, "Way to go Mike"! Luckily she just circled the truck and the rest started streaming out.

I thought I might fall on the ground laughing when I looked over at Whit laying there watching these ewes come off. He had seen sheep before, but never so many. I think I saw his eyes actually grow. I was really hoping his belly wasnít though.

Believe it or not, I stood outside in the cold March weather for several hours looking at these sheep. I canít remember if it was disbelief that I just bought them or fear of what I was going to do with them now! Either way I figured I was committed and I am about as hard headed as the day is long, so I was determined to make a decent go at this new venture.

I am very fortunate to know several people who are successful sheep producers so I called on them for help, right away I might add. Another benefit I have is my dad is a vet and lives close by!

I had decided on May lambing since we calve in March and April and only have so much barn space if the weather gets nasty. I am so thankful now for that decision!! We got one week of cold weather right away in May, but other than that the weather was great! I had planned on shearing the 3rd week in April but unfortunately the day before we got 4 inches of new snow. So that had to be put off for another week. Only one ewe had lambed before we sheared and one more within hours after shearing.

Shearing was an interesting day! I felt so bad for the guy who agreed to come shear our sheep. I told him several times on the phone that we arenít "sheep people" and have pretty poor "sheep facilities". He still agreed to come. I think every neighbor in the county came over that day. Just to watch.

Lambing has been, by far, the biggest challenge. I suppose that is to be expected. Although Iíd have to say worming and sorting sheep in cattle facilities has to rank right up there! Of course Mike wasnít a big advocate of getting sheep in the first place so I have been on my own for most of the sheep work. Including lambing. Do you know there is a real reason for a crook? Sheep donít take to well to being roped. They choke down so fast it could make your head spin! Not to mention they arenít to easy to heel either.

We ID all our cows and calves with tags and keep fairly decent records. (Mainly so we can keep track of whatís dead and alive!) So I figured I would need to mark these sheep with something as they lambed. I had heard of people spraying numbers on them and decided to go that route. This is where the rope came in and I learned how much handier a crook would be! I lambed out in a 200 acre pasture that is fairly hilly, but not to rough. I wanted to mark each ewe and lamb/s with corresponding numbers. Proved to be a bit of a challenge to catch each ewe out there and keep her still long enough to make the number legible on her back!

The first ewe I roped I thought for sure she was dead when she hit the ground! Took her awhile to get up too. Figured the next time Iíd try to make sure I didnít just rip her off her feet as she ran the opposite direction. I also learned very quickly that horses not previously exposed to sheep, are a "little" leery of them when first introduced. The best part though was when everyone (friends and family) showed up to help brand calves and had to ride right through the sheep pasture to get to the cattle! More than one young horse decided that wasnít the place to be.

Lambing was extremely good for my dogs though! Itís amazing to watch the confidence of a dog grow as they learn to deal with the situations new stock deal out. Although when the first ewe with a lamb ran out of the bunch and blind sided Whit, he did look a bit surprised.

Now, we live in coyote "alley" and we also have a few mountain lions and bobcats around so we had to find a way to not have our investment become the sole diet of our local predators. We opted to go with guard dogs. Good ones donít just fall off the turnip truck either! Iím a big advocate for people that are getting started in Border Collies to start with a trained or at least started dog if they can afford it. So I followed my own advice and bought two adult Pyrenees. One has turned out extremely well, the other decided she would rather hang out near my kids than the sheep. Donít have room for another pet so she went down the road. We got a yearling male to replace her and he has been outstanding!

The Border Collies and I did have a few lessons to learn very quickly concerning guard dogs. Number one it is a good idea to let the guard dogs know that I am there with the dogs before sending them on an outrun near dark! Also that lambs are next to God when it comes to a guard dog. I think I actually caught a few of my Border Collies trying to console lambs quickly so they didnít make any noise from that itty, bitty nip on the butt they gave them!

I have heard (and been heard saying) that sheep are stupid animals. I have come to a new conclusion. They have such a different defense mechanism than cattle, horses, etc. that they can be frustrating to figure out. But I would have to say they really arenít all that stupid. They sure do have a way of making me look like it though!

Lambing was difficult but very rewarding. Guard dogs are something to be held in high esteem and marveled upon. Watching a Border Collie throw his head and run with all his might to get to the other side of a flock of sheep is truly awe inspiring!