One year in the life of a sheep flock complete with a shepherd and working dogs.
By Lisa Parrish, GMC Editor
Technology has changed our world over the last 100 years. Consider the 1900s telephone with its switchboard and hand-held earpiece to today’s smartphone computer in your pocket. That’s a lot of change. One industry that has changed very little over the same time: sheep ranching.
Park City, Utah, sheep rancher Brad Osguthorpe and his wife Jenny run the Circle JB Ranch and Livestock, a rangeland sheep operation. They own between 900 and 1000 sheep (called a band) who live, eat and sleep outdoors. The animals never spend a night inside a barn, unless there is a problem. “It’s a beautiful way to raise an animal in the natural elements eating natural food,” Osguthorpe said.
Unlike agricultural farms, Osguthorpe’s ranch is not located where the sheep live. The band spend their time grazing in the mountains surrounding Park City, during the warmer months and on the Wyoming desert plains in the colder months. Osguthorp’s full-time shepherd, who hails from Peru, cares for the flock with horses and both working and guard dogs.
“Our Peruvian shepherd has the skill sets that fit perfectly with what we need,” Osguthorpe described. (He also said that his herder is humble and preferred his name not be used in this story.) While on the range, the herder lives in a portable sheep camp, or “tiny house on wheels,” according to Osguthorpe. “It has everything he needs, a bed, fridge, and stove.”
A year in the life of a ewe
January finds the ewes or female sheep living on the Wyoming plains eating desert pastures. The band will move up to 15 miles during this stage as to not overgraze one area. How often and how far they move depends on the available grasses. The herder is their constant companion until the band is moved back to Park City near the beginning of April.
“Years ago in my grandfather’s time, the sheep were trailed everywhere around Utah. But, now with houses and developments, we need trucks to move them,” Osguthorpe said. It takes a few days and several trips back and forth to travel the 250 miles between Wyoming and Utah.
The flock receives their once-a-year shoring in mid-April. A South American shoring crew travels from ranch to ranch in Utah and will take a day-and-a-half to shorn Osguthorpe’s 1,000 sheep. The flock will produce roughly 15,000 pounds of wool. “I am proud to say that the wool grown in the US stays in the US with the military buying all our wool,” he said.
Osguthorpe explains shearing sheep is very beneficial to the health of the animal. A sheep can go wool-blind if the wool grows over the animal’s eyes. He also said that sheep can contract diseases from the fecal matter lodged in the wool. Finally, the wool is thick and the animal can overheat in the warmer months if not shorn.
The month of May sees the ewes birthing lambs (or lambing) out on the range. Each ewe usually produces between one and two lambs, however triplets and quadruplets can occur. “We don’t like triplets or more because many times the moms don’t have enough milk and will reject the babies,” Osguthorpe explained. That’s when Osguthorpe and his crew will step in and save the small lamb by bringing it back to the barn. “My daughter loves to bottle feed the orphans,” he said. They usually see between 20 and 30 orphans each season. Osguthorpe does not help ewes lambing unless he sees a problem with either the mother or lambs.
A few weeks after lambing, Osguthorpe and his crew will dock the herd, which includes castrating the males and giving yearly vaccinations. “We do not give any antibiotics unless the animal is very sick,” Osguthorpe said.
The late spring and early summer months see the large flock of lambs and ewes grazing on the summer range in the mountains that surround Park City. It is during this time that Superior Farms, the local processing plant that Osguthorpe works with, selects lambs for harvesting. Depending on weight, some lambs will travel to a feed lot and some will go straight to Superior’s processing plant. Osguthorpe’s lambs usually weigh between 135 and 140 pounds at harvesting. By October, the flock is smaller with only ewes and bucks remaining.
Around November, the flock is moved back to the Wyoming desert prairie and bucks are introduced to the ewes and the process begins again. “We pride ourselves on that natural way we grow these animals,” Osguthorpe explained.
The docile life of a sheep grazing on pasture grasses and living naturally can be shattered naturally by predators living in the mountains and plains. Coyote, mountain lion and bear are threats to the band. “Coyotes are opportunistic, and sheep are easy targets,” Osguthorpe said.
Four guard dogs protect the sheep from dangers. The Peruvian herder’s dogs are a mix of Great Pyrenees and Akbash breeds, who comingle and bond with the sheep. At the slightest hint of danger, the dogs instinctually begin barking to warn predators they are on guard. It is rare that a mountain lion or bear will attack the flock with the dogs at hand. However, coyotes are much more of a problem. “We can lose between 20 and 50 lambs in two months,” Osguthorpe said.
The herder also uses four border collie dogs to control the flock. Through a series of whistles, he can move the sheep in any direction, even splitting one lamb off if it requires attention. “It’s so impressive to see what he can do,” Osguthorpe said. “It seems so natural to have them on the range. It’s not forced. It’s just natural.”
Best lamb dish
Not surprisingly, Osguthorpe enjoys eating lamb regularly. And, he likes the way his wife Jenny prepares it. But, when pressed for his favorite dish, Osguthorpe finally says that lamb chops simply prepared on the grill is his number one way to eat lamb. “I just love the smoked flavor and crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside,” he described.
“This lifestyle is foreign to a lot of people. But, we love it. It’s so special to raise my family this way,” Osguthorpe concluded.
US Sheep Industry Production Information
In 2019, there were 101,387 sheep farms and ranches in the United States. As of Jan. 1, 2019, there were 5.23 million head of sheep in the United States. Sheep are produced in all 50 states. However, the highest sheep-producing states are located west of the Mississippi River, where most of the larger sheep ranches reside. The eastern part of the country supports a greater number of smaller, pasture-based operations. Click here for Fast Fact information on sheep production, ecology, predator losses, and wool production in the US.