Sunday, November 25, 2018

Of Cowboys, Sheepherders, and Paying for a Ranch

My sheep shearer, Derrick Adamache, tells a story about the value of wool 100 years ago. Relatively speaking, wool was worth much more in 1918 than it is today - Derrick tells about entire ranches that were purchased using a single year's wool check as a down payment. As the world emerged from World War I, American wool was worth $1.25 per pound (last year, our coarse wool brought $1.56 per pound - our 2018 wool hasn't sold yet, but will probably be worth less than that). By comparison, sheep ranchers paid $0.10 per head for shearing services (compared to the $4.00+ I pay to Derrick). Sheep walked nearly everywhere they went (as opposed to riding in trucks or trailers). I can see how my predecessors bought their ranches!

If you talk to a family that has owned a ranch for more than four generations nearly anywhere in the West, you'll find that a good many of them started (at least in part) with sheep. The running joke (among those of us who still raise sheep) is that cows bring prestige; sheep bring profit. Reality is a bit more complicated (isn't it always?). Sheep take more management - somebody has to see our sheep 365 days out of the year; cattle can survive without daily human contact. Sheep are more susceptible to predators, too - those of us who still raise sheep spend much more time than our cattle rancher friends protecting our animals from coyotes, mountain lions, neighbor dogs, and other predators. But sheep produce multiple products - lamb, mutton and wool (at least). Sheep can survive on marginal forage; cows need the best grass. Sheep, with a shorter gestation (five months rather than nine), offer more flexibility in terms of their nutritional requirements.

Somewhere around the middle of the Twentieth Century, cattle began to be more profitable than sheep (at least for most producers). American GI's during World War II were fed canned mutton - and swore off all sheep meat for the rest of their lives. New technology allowed us to turn petroleum products into winter garments - culminating with the invention of Polar Fleece by Malden Mills in the late 1970s. Increased protections for predators (like mountain lions, gray wolves and grizzly bears) induced some ranchers to switch entirely to cattle. As life became more expensive and more time consuming (and as we expected things like health insurance, entertainment, and higher education), ranch owners switched to a livestock species that required less time.

While these changes reflect modern economic realities, there has also been a long-held bias towards cattle-raising and against sheepherding. This bias is reflected in our culture. Go to your local western wear store and ask for cowboy boots - they'll know what you're asking for! Ask for sheepherder boots and they'll laugh at you (believe me!). I know a number of families that still raise 20-30 cows on the side simply to be able to say, "I run cows." There are far fewer of us who raise 100-200 ewes so that we can say, "I'm a sheepherder."

But this seems to be changing. At least on the West Coast (and I hear on the East Coast as well), lamb is increasingly in demand among "foodies." Even more lamb (and mutton) is moving through "non-traditional" marketing chains - that is, as urban areas become increasingly diverse ethnically, more sheep meat is being sold outside of the formal marketing system. Thanks to innovative companies like SmartWool, Duckworth, Farm-to-Feet and Darn Tough Socks, wool is once again becoming the sustainable alternative for hikers, skiers, hunters, and other outdoors-people. The ability of sheep to utilize a wide variety of vegetation - and the ability of sheepherders to graze sheep in just about any environment (including urban areas) - has created new opportunities for sheepherders to manage wildfire fuels. Sheep are chic!

Even with these new economic opportunities, I'm under no illusion that my cattle ranching friends will turn once again to sheep. Sheep still require more management; I have to put my hands on every sheep we own four or five times every year - cattle do not require nearly as much labor. I know I'll never be able to go to a western-wear store and ask to see the sheepherder hats. Regardless, we're able to manage rangelands that wouldn't be grazed otherwise - with electric fencing and livestock guardian dogs, we can graze land that would otherwise burn (or need to be mowed). We're able to turn grass, weeds and brush into wool, lamb and mutton. I'll gladly trade practicality (and profit) for prestige!

No comments:

Post a Comment