Steve Stuebner, Life on the Range
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Forest Service officials pay attention to range readiness before sheep move onto National Forest land. Monte Miller, a range technician for the Boise National Forest, explained that “there are certain key species (they) look at.”
Indeed, as sheep rancher Frank Shirts unloaded sheep to some Boise National Forest land next to Arrowrock Reservoir, the sheep began feeding on rush skeletonweed, bitterbrush and more.
The Forest Service keeps watch over the grazing sheep to ensure that the utilization does not exceed 50 percent.
“We want to look at proper management,” Miller said. “Frank is in the business of putting pounds on the lambs, and to do that, they have to keep them on fresh feed all the time. But very rarely will they graze over 30 percent use. Livestock grazing stimulates the growth of grass as long as there’s proper management.”
Shirts trains his herders to graze the country once over lightly as they pass through, but still, he wants them to be thorough.
“Sheep aren’t what you call a grass-eater,” Shirts explained. “If they’ve got the brush and the forbs, that’s what they want to eat. And just like a kid in a candy store, they pick off a flower here, and a little brush there, tasting everything.
“They’ve all got a designated route, and the herder knows where they are going,” he said. “Every day, they work those little canyons. They’ll go down the draw in the morning, buck up and take their siesta, and graze along, eating the brush and the forbs. They work all of that underbrush and it helps the forest an awful lot.”
At night, the sheep naturally climb to the top of the hill. The animals like to climb; it’s just part of their nature.
Every two weeks or so, Shirts and his foreman resupply the herders in the forest with fresh groceries and supplies. This is a time to catch up on how the sheep are doing, talk about predators and life in general.
In early August, it’s time to herd the ewes and lambs into a corral and ship the lambs to market. Shirts has a sheep corral in Meadow Creek, east of Idaho City on the Boise National Forest, where they gather the sheep. A lot of friends camp out with Shirts to help.
“It’s shipping time,” Shirts said. “We’ve been taking care of them since they were lambs.
“Started in Wilder, and they come up here over the high mountains, and it’s time to send them to the market. They look good. They’re a beautiful mountain lamb. I’m pleased with them.”
Shirts said he lost about 80 head of sheep to coyotes, wolves and black bears this time around. He also lost a few sheep to falling timber in old burn areas. “These mountains, you’ve got lots of things to deal with. Every year, we’ll get a bunch of sheep killed by those trees.”
Shirts sees those losses as a cost of doing business when running sheep on public lands.
Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, attends the shipping event, as he does for many sheep producers in Idaho. Boyd arranges for several truck drivers and sheep trailers to transport the sheep to market.
“For these folks, they work all year, and now it’s payday,” Boyd said. “They hope it’s a good one. It is a celebration. It’s a perfect excuse to get into the mountains and enjoy the camaraderie and the families.”
Early the next morning, the crew gets the loading chutes in place next to the sheep corral for loading the sheep onto special truck-trailers made especially for hauling sheep to market. Each trucker will haul about 195 lambs to a feedlot in Greeley, Colo., where they are sold by national meatpacking companies to wholesale outlets.
The truckers make about $3,800 per load to Denver. Then they deadhead back to Idaho and do it again.
“It’s their payday, too,” Boyd said.
While the lambs are being loaded into trucks, the ewes are placed in a separate corral with rams for breeding.
“We … put some of those rams in, and some of these mamas will have lambs in their bellies tomorrow night, so we start it all over again,” Shirts said.
After the lambs are shipped, the herders trail the ewes and rams back through the forest and foothills toward the Shirts home ranch in August, September and October.
In October, the sheep pass through the Boise Foothills and cross Idaho 55 near Beacon Light Road in Eagle, stopping traffic momentarily.
Shirts makes arrangements with farmers in the Treasure Valley so his sheep can graze their way home, eating stubble in hay fields along the way.
“We gotta use that feed,” he said. “With the price of hay and corn, you have to utilize every bit you can. The sheep come in and eat the hay, and it really helps the ground. We electric fence it, and they move across the field and fertilize the fields. You can’t believe how it helps with the rodents and the mice.”
The herders time the trip — and stretch it out accordingly — so the sheep don’t arrive at the home ranch until January, when lambing begins.
In November, as the sheep are grazing the fields, Shirts brings the sheep to a ranch along the way to shear the wool from the ewes and rams.
He hires several shearing crews to do the job. Each shearing crew has a customized shearing trailer with all of the tools and equipment needed for shearing sheep. One crew is led by John Balderson of Council. The other is led by Bernie Fairchild of Buhl.
Shirts’ herders funnel the sheep into a chute leading to the shearing trailers, and work the animals through one by one. There are 3-4 men that shear the sheep in each trailer.
Balderson has been shearing sheep for over 30 years.
“You start on the brisket and take the belly wool off,” he explained. “You throw it aside — the wool on the belly is kind of short, and they like to keep that bagged separate. And then you’ll go down and crotch them all out, and start on this leg, and take the leg off, and then come up to the neck, and take this front shoulder off, and then turn that sheep around, and take this whole side off. When you get done, that sheep can just jump out the door behind you, and the fleece, you can throw it out as a blanket. And it will all stay together.”
It’s critical that the shearer cuts the wool off close to the skin, and it needs to be cut off as a full cape, Balderson said.
“Part of it is to keep the wool in one piece, and part of it is to keep the sheep tight, so you don’t take the hide off,” he said.
A number of workers watch for the wool capes in front of the shearing trailers, and stuff them into motorized compactors nearby. The machines compact the wool until they are full. Then, a worker closes the top of the bale and loads it into a truck. Each bale of wool weighs about 400-500 pounds. Back in the day, the shearing crew compacted the wool by foot. One of the workers would stand and stomp on the load and then climb out when it was full.
Balderson has been shearing sheep year-round in Idaho and elsewhere since he was in high school. His pay depends on how fast he can shear the sheep. He gets paid about $4 per sheep.
“When I was younger, I’d try to do 20 an hour. On a good day, 25 an hour, or 150-200 a day. When I was 58, I was still going pretty strong, but I’m 65 now, and I don’t care anymore,” he said, laughing. “If I do 90 or 100 a day, I feel good.”
Shirts likes to shear the sheep in the fall before lambing season in the winter. “It makes them milk better. The lambs can find the udder a lot better,” he said.
Balderson said it’s hard to find anyone in America who knows how to shear sheep anymore.
“Extremely hard. That’s why we have a trailer full of guys working here from Uruguay. We used to have guys come here from New Zealand, but the dollar is so weak that they don’t come here anymore. Most of the guys who come here are from countries that are quite poor.”
That has something to do with the relatively low price of wool. Shirts keeps the bales of wool in storage until the wool prices are best.
Sometimes, he’s held onto the wool for several years, until the price is right. He sells the wool through a global distributor.
“It’s medium- to fine-grade ramble wool. They’ll make good shirts, blankets, that kind of stuff,” Balderson said.
Shirts has been in the sheep business for most of his life. His dad was a sheep shearer, and they had some sheep at home, too, about 400 head. About 30 years ago, he bought several bands, and worked to obtain grazing permits from the BLM and Forest Service. Over time, he built up the herds and the permits.
Shirts has seen the lamb and wool markets go up and down, and he’s dealt with a lot of other issues over the years. But he loves to raise sheep. It runs in his blood.
“I’ve fought the markets all of my life,” he says. “When you get a pretty band of sheep, you think, gosh damn, you love that, you love working with them, you love making them good. It’s something you’re proud of, but they’ve got to be taken care of. Someone is with them 24 hours a day. And they’re taken care of.”
• Steve Stuebner is the writer and producer of Life on the Range, an educational project sponsored by the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission.