And so ……..

What to make of it all?  Trying to characterize this busy trip of over 900 miles through 3 states and at least 12 stops (not including hotels) is a real challenge.


Best to use the words of the 23 people from Michigan and Illinois who made the journey:  onions, 18-hour day, drought, dust, new acquaintances, new houses, population explosion…. labor wanted, sheep crossing, pelt puller, enlightening, overwhelming, Rocky Mountain high, hurray – Jim’s OK, heavy carcass, large feedlots, teeth!, water… endless, wild horses, better understanding, black bears,stewardship, permits, desolate, 50%, lack of water, fiber works, interconnected…  elevation, strong finish, ORV, enterprising, family business, scenic views, risk taker, sheep camp, tourism, hospitality, influential, the land!

Those of you who made the trip – please weigh in with your comments (not on the blog),  but on the value of making the trip.  What did you get out of this journey?  Was it worth your time and money?

A big “Thank You” to all of you who came.  Everyone participated fully and the traveling experience couldn’t have been better.  What a great and flexible crew!  And a huge “Thank You” to all of our hosts.  Our memories of the west will forever be colored by the hospitality we met wherever we stopped.


Friday, Sept. 14 – Utah

The Osguthorpe family are the last ranchers left in Park City, Utah.  Their operation began here at this barn as a dairy.  The barn, a designated historic site,  is now owned by Park City with an easement that specifies that this acreage will be maintained as an agricultural land and not developed.


The phenomenal growth of the tourist industry here has been responsible for growing the last ‘crop’ on the finite land base around Park City, which is houses.  The mountains, rising from 7,000 to 10,000 feet, the dry climate at 13 inches of precipitation per year and the annual snowfall of 500 inches, primarily of the fine powder variety have combined to make this a premium winter sport destination.  The increasing popularity of hiking, biking and horseback riding are turning it into a year-round playground and the beauty of the pine/aspen forests that blanket the slopes make the demand for property a high dollar figure.  Maintaining a ranching operation in this environment requires creative thinking, risk-taking and getting your priorities in order.  The Osguthorpes have done just that.

We visited a sheep camp that belonged to their sheep operation on a US Forest Service allotment high in the mountains. In our conversation with Brad we were able to get a more realistic picture of the cost of grazing in this high country which includes leasing a Forest Service allotment as a 10-year lease plus a cost per head per year for grazing,   hiring a herder to stay with the sheep year round, including all his food, housing, horses and dogs and their feed, mobile phones, plane fare back and forth to their home country every 3 years, and predator losses.  Depending on the year and the location there may be trucking costs involved for hauling water to livestock or livestock to feed.




Diversity brings strength and resilience and it applies to the Osguthorpe family.  As the only rancher left in Park City, dad Steve owned some of the steep slopes in and around the city.  He leased some of his property to a ski resort, which has become the largest ski resort in North America.  However, the lease comes with some stipulations that were laid out with the future in mind.  The sheep are brought to graze on the ski slopes for a couple of months in the late summer.  Steve makes sure that the slopes are not left bare but are seeded and protected to ensure quality sheep feed AND erosion control.  Each of Steve’s 7 children are involved in some way with the larger Osguthorpe enterprise but they each have their own ventures that complement the larger operation and provide for their own risk management.  Among the diverse operations are cattle and an outdoor recreation / guiding service that takes people either on horseback, snowmobiles, snowshoes or hikes into the mountains.  We were privileged to be taken in UTV’s along some of the trails up to the top of the mountain where one of the ski lifts dead ended.  It provided a fabulous view of the surrounding area and a memorable end to a visit with this gracious and hospitable Utah ranching family.




Thursday, Sept. 13 – Past, present and future

Rock Springs, WY – In the early 1900’s,  home to over 6 million sheep, once the wool capital of North America, now home to the Rock Springs Grazing Association.56502243029532706142984.jpeg

It was established in 1907 by a group of ranchers to ensure winter range for their sheep flocks against transient bands that migrated through their territory eating all the winter feed. A collaborative effort by a group of forward thinking ranchers purchased odd numbered sections of land owned by the railroad. Together these holdings created a guaranteed 2 million acre winter grazing ground for the ranchers who purchased shares in the group. Although the number of head wintered here is down to 250,000, challenges for this association remain. Some of these are challenges faced by the industry itself: fewer numbers of sheep create marketing challenges, predators are a continuing issue, labor is scarce, government regulations are sometimes short sighted and overbearing.  Some challenges are specific to the inter mountain west. Large herds of elk and wild horses compete with sheep for feed and the perceived conflict with the big horn sheep population has place restrictions on access to grazing land.   Down the road the RSGA faces other issues. Multiple land use pressures such as mineral extraction, oil and gas exploration, solar and wind energy options are decisions they have, and will continue to make. Above all others, however, is water. It is a current challenge as they face a historical drought in this already arid land, but they know the issue will not go away or be easily solved. The face of the western sheep industry reflected in these ranchers gave us a glimpse of the surprising productivity of this very different landscape, some of the adversity they face and their practical, creative ability to look into the future. Their strength of character and pride in their past will serve them, and the sheep industry well.


As much a part of sheep production in the west as the landscape is the need for dogs, both livestock guardian dogs and herding dogs.  Cat Urbigkit, who facilitated our meeting with the Rock Springs Grazing Association,  gave us some insight on the value and role these unique animals play in safeguarding herds of sheep and cattle in this predator-rich environment.  Cat also set up a meeting with a local rancher who trains and uses herding dogs extensively.  Laura Taliaferro-Pearson is a school bus driver, the inventor ponytail hats, and a rancher who demonstrated some of the talents of her Border Collies with us.







Late afternoon found us headed for beautiful Park City, Utah and the last day of our busy tour.  Historic Main Street in Park City was a great way to end the day and provided a multitude of great places to eat.  The smoke from the nearby wildfires that have plagued the west, while visible as a pink haze on the horizon at sunset, was not a problem on this warm, pleasant night.



Wednesday, Sept. 12 – out of “Colorful Colorado” into “Cowboy Country” Wyoming – or not

The BLM story explained… welcoming hosts at the Craig, CO office took some time despite our late arrival, to share with us naive Easterners information about the public/private land issues in the West. Few of us knew much about the BLM mission (stewarding public land in 9 western states and Alaska) or responsibilities although we’ve all heard anecdotes and seen stories. What we heard from Asst. District Director Hunter Seim was the value and necessity of good relationships as the BLM and producers work collaboratively to assure US citizens that our public lands remain productive and accessible to a variety of users. Big country, big challenges!

Historically, sheep have been a big part of the region, economically and culturally. Initially raised with a focus on wool, today’s sheep in this area still have a genetic component for wool quality even though they are primarily raised for meat. A stop at Yampa Valley Fiberworks took us back to the era when wool was king. Lewis and Lorrae Moon have gradually put together a business processing processing small batches of fleeces and turning it into custom yarn. The retail shop features local artisan work as well as their yarn. Their enthusiasm and love of the process of handling the fiber and turning it into a product to please their customers is the real strength of this couple.

The road from Craig CO to the Ladder Ranch took us into Wyoming – back into Colorado – and back into Wyoming…..The ranch driveway straddles the border and all the complications of running a big range operation in two states was only a minor issue dealt with by this multi-generational outfit. Dad, Pat O’Toole and daughter Megan Lalley met us, giving us an overview of the ranch and some of the issues they confront.

Water is a big one this year for their 7000 sheep and 1000 cows. They usually trail the sheep to the winter range over 60 miles away. Lack of water means trucking them. The $ implications are mind boggling.

The conservation dilemmas they face are on a big scale too. Stream structures they’ve built in Battle Creek to maintain resident trout populations have been highly successful, but this year they had to choose whether to irrigate hay meadows for a third cutting or keep the creek water levels high enough to save the trout.

Dealing daily with predators, labor issues and government regulations keeps this family busy and highly involved in every aspect of the beautiful country they live in and manage, from local to Washington DC.

Tuesday – (cont. – ’til 11:00pm!)

Julie Hansmire fills us in on the particulars of running her 3 bands of impressive Merino ewes and their lambs near Chapel Peak, Eagle, CO.1100 ewes and their 1400 lambs met us on the road to ranch headquarters. Assisted by her ranch manager they were getting ready to sort lambs off their mothers and load them to ship to feedlots on Wednesday. A well managed grazing operation with attention not only to economics but to land stewardship, communication with land owners and education to the local community about the value of sheep on the land.

Tuesday – Sept 11 – Colorado

The Rocky Mountain state – and we can make them out on the distant horizon, but to begin with, we find ourselves in the midst of corn fields or subdivisions. Our ‘home’ is a luxury bus driven by super accommodating Mark.

Club lamb producer Jason Simpson at Ault explained what the high stakes business end of club lamb production looks like using embryo transplants and AI plus intensely selected rams.

The next morning finds us in a very different arm of the sheep industry. Harper Feedlots showed us where thousands mountain lambs from Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho go when they make their way off the summer range. They feed approximately 150,000 lambs and 10,000 cattle per year in a family run operation. Mary Harper adeptly toured us around, answering our many questions as husband Mike was busy unloading trucks delivering lambs to the feedlot. 13 full time employees help to keep the lambs fed, monitored, sorted and crops harvested.

Weld County, CO – largest concentration of lamb feedlots AND home to the largest lamb packing plant in the US – Mountain States Lamb. A member owned entity, they kill 25% of the US lamb kill per year. About half their lambs, 100 – 125,000, are supplied by the members. With their electronic grading system they are changing the way producers are paid for their lambs and influencing the industry’s mindset about lamb supply, quality and consistency.

After an information filled morning, we’re off to get a close up of the Rockies and see the lambs as they make their way off summer range.