Nevada's Ellison Ranch finds sheep are the only way to graze desert range
MINDEN, Nevada: DeLoyd Satterwhite, general manager and partner in the sprawling 2.5 million acre Ellison Ranch believes that what separates cattle country and sheep country in the West is not so much the forage resource but the availability of stockwater.
"A dry ewe can do fine in the desert with just a little snow or a good dew. A cow has to have 25 to 30 gallons of water each and every day. The truth of the West is that all the water is privately owned and all the grass is owned by the government. We have to use sheep to use the (government) land." he said.
Ellison Ranch grazes approximately 8000 sheep and 8000 beef cows. The sheep herds graze almost exclusively on government land and are kept moving all year long to harvest the sparse vegetation. The cattle do not venture far from the ranch's 20,000 acres of irrigated pasture.
"Our (sheep) range stretches for 300 miles from Austin, Nevada, to the Idaho border. Everything we own is portable. We use tents, wagons and portable pens. We don't truck any animals. They walk the whole distance."
Satterwhite said they are one of the last ranches to still retain a trail permit which allows them to cross all lands both public and private. This includes Interstate highways and railroads.
The sheep winter at 4000 feet in elevation and summer at 9000 feet. The sheep normally cover three to four miles a day and never over five. Satterwhite describes it as a "step and graze" type of movement. This constant movement prevents flies and parasitism and no sheep are ever wormed.
SHEEPHERDERS HAVE A LONELY LIFE
All the ranch's sheepherders are from Peru. The herders work afoot but are provided horses for personal transportation. "Peruvians like to visit each other at night," he said.
A camp foreman visits the herders every two to three days and brings supplies every five days. The herders work seven days a week, 365 days a year for three years. USA law requires ranchers to pay the herders a minimum of $700 a month. Because all food, shelter and medical expenses are covered many herders are able to save almost 100% of their salary.
After three years, their work visas require that they return to Peru for at least one day. They can then legally start another three years of herding in the USA. While most herders only stay until they can buy a farm in Peru, others will spend almost a whole lifetime on the range.
"It's a rough life," Satterwhite admitted. "We can't get any Americans to do it."
He said young sheep are taught to herd by the older sheep and not the relatively unskilled sheepherders. "You've got to have some older sheep in a band to offer leadership," he said.
Ewes with lambs are herded in bands of 1000 with one herder. Once the lambs are weaned the bands are combined to 2000 ewes and managed with two herders.
The ewes are bred at Thanksgiving on irrigated alfalfa hay fields and start to lamb in mid- April. Yearling ewes are not grazed on the alfalfa to encourage them to have single lambs rather than twins.
All ewes are Rambouillet and are bred to blackface Suffolk rams. All ewe replacements are purchased. The lambs are weaned in September and normally sold as feeder lambs at approximately 90 lbs.
Shearing is scheduled for early April. The shearing contractor uses a portable shearing shed built on a large semi-truck trailer. All shearers are from New Zealand and are provided by the contractor. The shearer charges $2.70 a ewe to shear. Wool clip averages 10 lbs per ewe.
INTENSIVE MANAGEMENT NOT POSSIBLE ON THE RANGE Lambing occurs on the range. The pregnant ewes are kept moving away from the ewes who have lambed. Little to no assistance is given with lambing.
"We don't go looking for ewes in trouble. If we stumble across one, we'll try to help her out."
After 10 days, in which the ewe and lamb(s) are allowed to bond, the ewes and lambs are assembled back into bands. All wet ewes are given a lamb if they lose theirs. This is accomplished by tying the ewe to a shrub until she accepts a lamb taken from a ewe with twins.
While some guard dogs are used, predator losses are seen as part of the cost of doing business. Lamb losses to all causes are five to eight percent. He said ewes only last eight to nine years under the tough range conditions and are culled on teeth wear.
Occasionally they are forced to truck water to sheep on summer range. He said it is very important that enough trough space be provided so that each ewe has a place to drink as desert sheep all want to drink at the same time. He said they provide 1000 gallons per band, every other day.
"You can afford to haul water to sheep. You can't afford to haul water to cattle," he said. He said none of his sheep had ever seen a bale of hay and had only been fed once in 50 years. (Supplementing livestock on government range is prohibited by law.)
He said that sheep required much less labor than cattle and were always more profitable than cattle. The primary problem was that most Americans didn't know how to make them go where they want them to go. "They handle a lot different than cattle," he said.
There is also a deep cultural bias against sheep in the working cowboy community. He said they had a waiting list of Americans who wanted to work as cowboys with the cattle but couldn't find a single one willing to work with the sheep.
However, as the man responsible for keeping the Ellison Ranch's bottom line black, he knows which way he would go if he could only run one species.
"If I was forced to choose between the cattle and the sheep, I personally would take the sheep," he said.
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