North Fork Ranching: Local Black Sheep Do Good in USDA Study
Local Black Sheep an Essential Control in USDA Experiment
“So keeping this valley a pristine environment free of any even minor contamination from the drilling chemicals, and the volatiles that are expressed when they put fracking fluid in settling ponds, is critical because we know that those chemicals in very small amounts affect reproduction, and that’s our entire research project.”
Oogie McGuire of Desert Weyr ranch is explaining her collaborative endeavor with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). She manages North America’s second-largest flock of a rare breed of heirloom livestock, Black Welsh Mountain sheep. On Garvin Mesa outside Paonia, she has just finished sorting ewes for breeding. We visit on her front steps on a crystal clear, mild fall day; black sheep in red coats lounge in pens behind us, and a ginger cat named Agent Orange rubs and weaves around us.
“This is year eight of a cooperative research project where we’re working to develop techniques for long-term freezing and storing of ram semen, and non-surgical artificial insemination (AI) procedures for ewes. Currently the best technique for AI in sheep is surgical; there are three people in the country qualified to do this surgery, which ranges in price from $500 to $1000 per ewe to attempt, and over all breeds in the US roughly 50% of the ewes get pregnant. Obviously this is really bad.
“Research coming out of Ireland and Norway seems to indicate that a lot of the problems we’ve had in the past have been related to semen collection, freezing and thawing protocols. We think we’ve got some understanding now of what’s happening, looking at the actual structure of the cell membrane of the sperm cells. There are also some anatomy issues with the ewes’ reproductive tracts that cause some problems and have always caused problems, and we’ve found some ways around that.”
Increasing the success rate of AI in sheep is important, Oogie explains, because the industry needs to protect rare breeds and genetic diversity.
“It’s very expensive to move sheep around the country. We have breeds here that don’t exist in other parts of the world and vice versa.” With the combination of the need to increase protein production to feed a growing population, and concerns about climate change including issues with droughts and floods, the potential for unlimited and unforeseen adaptations must be preserved.
“Whatever the cause of climate change, that’s somewhat irrelevant. We know that historically and even prehistorically climate changes, and so we need the genetic diversity in our food crops, not just animals but plants as well, to meet that challenge. Part of that is being able to move the germ plasm around.”
She clarifies, “This is not GMO, we’re not taking genes from a different species and putting them into a species, we’re doing basically the same selection process that’s been done with sheep for more than 10,000 years, but we’re allowing it to happen in a way that’s more cost effective.”
Other animal industries like pigs, dairy cattle, and beef cattle, all have fairly successful AI techniques, Oogie tells me. “Turkeys, for instance, we’re talking just before Thanksgiving, all modern broad-breasted turkeys are produced entirely through the use of AI. You may have some issues with that and I do, I prefer the heritage turkeys and the natural mating turkeys, but the fact is if we didn’t have those techniques nobody would be enjoying the big-breasted turkeys on Thursday.”
So improving the success of AI is important in the sheep industry, she continues, and it’s also important for the conservation of heritage breeds, “because if we don’t have a way to use the semen we collect and store in the national gene bank, then we don’t have a way to preserve those genes in the event of some disaster. The problem with genetic diversity is once you lose it you can never get it back.”
Desert Weyr does a lot of natural breeding, partly because it’s, well, natural, and partly because it serves as a control for the AI experiments. “Our research project with the USDA is entirely based on reproduction in sheep. Reproduction in any animal is significantly affected by both waterborne and airborne pollution.
“Whether or not you believe that the actual fracking process can be done safely doesn’t matter; the mere act of drilling and the known issues with accidents and surface contaminants would basically destroy the use of our flock as a research flock. Because even tiny amounts of these chemicals in the air or water or feed that my sheep breathe, drink or eat is going to affect their reproduction. We cannot control for that environmental contamination, it just has to not be here.”
The environmental purity of the North Fork Valley is one of the reasons the Desert Weyr flock was selected by the USDA, Oogie emphasizes. “Also, we have a small flock that’s contained, we know every individual, and we’re willing to keep a significant amount of individual sheep data, which is something that a big range flock running 5000 ewes just can’t do.”
So there is an argument to be made, I suggest, that this whole valley might be an important control in the larger “fracking experiment” that’s sweeping the planet right now. By keeping the valley clean and free of drilling and fracking associated pollutants, we can compare our land, water, animal and human health in years to come with that of other communities, like Pavilion, Wyo., or Dish, Texas, and see who’s better off…
From that dark and wishful thought, I look around at the bright day, and bring the conversation back to sheep. The Desert Weyr flock numbers around 65 ewes, Oogie says, “and 19 adult rams, about 17 more than I need for the number of ewes that we’ve got.”
Originally imported in 1973, there are only about 1600 animals total in North America. “We are the only flock that has all the bloodlines that exist. Our founding population in this country is nine ewes and two rams, or 11 individuals, which means that there were twice as many California condors as there were Black Welsh Mountain sheep.”
Oogie just returned from inspecting the largest flock in North America in Maryland. She is the only approved inspector for the Black Welsh Mountain Sheep Association on this continent, and she achieved this distinction after six years of traveling to the United Kingdom for training and evaluations.
“These sheep are bred to perform on grass so we don’t feed our sheep any grain at all. They finish out on grass. They’re good foragers, they’re good mothers. We lamb out on pasture without any barns.”
When she took agriculture classes at Colorado State University, Oogie says, “no one ever indicated that there was ever going to be a place for grass-finished anything. No one saw that. We were taught that it’s all going to go to confinement rearing, bring the grain, fully automated farms into factories. Well guess what? That isn’t what’s happening. And thank God for the people that saved all the various rare breeds and people that brought in rare breeds; they were rare because they didn’t meet the industrial ag model, and now they’re important sources for farmers that are trying to get started in and operate in a more sustainable way.”
Oogie and Ken McGuire have 40 acres, over half on wooded slopes with only about 13 in grazable pastures. The sheep are a significant portion of the family’s income, and they’ve greatly improved the water retention and the soil on the farm. Oogie went to high school here, and inherited the farm when her mom died in 1998.
The sheep share their pastures with four livestock guarding dogs. Predators are a big problem with sheep herds in general. “We have an 8-foot elk fence around all our grazing areas, yet this year bears have been observed inside the fence. We’ve also seen coyotes climb the fence, and mountain lions can jump it easily. Eagles and crows can also kill lambs. So the dogs protect the stock. They live with the sheep 24 hours a day. As far as the dogs are concerned, those are their sheep not our sheep. A lot of times during the day they look like they’re just big lumps in the pasture, you hardly think they’re doing anything. At night they patrol, they bark, if there’s anything out of place they bark, if it continues to come they will attack, they will attempt to kill it or die trying.”
Nearby range flocks have been losing dogs to bears this past summer, says Oogie. “If the bears are red-pawed attacking your sheep you’re allowed to shoot them,” she says. “This year around 100 bears have been killed that were physically attacking and killing sheep. There’s just way too many bears for the territory, and whenever there’s a problem bear in Aspen or anywhere else, where do they bring it? Right here, and that starts teaching other bears that they can come in on people.
“One of the things that never gets discussed is that even if the predators don’t kill your stock, if they’re around, the sheep don’t graze well, the cattle don’t graze well. We don’t pay our farmers and ranchers on a per head basis, they’re paid per pound. Say you lose 3-5 pounds because the sheep are worrying, which is pretty minimal really, but over the course of a thousand animals when it’s two dollars a pound that’s a significant income loss.
“People in America are not paying the true cost of their food,” she continues. “They do not understand what goes into producing the food they eat. They think that they’ll just get it cheap, you know, food comes in the grocery store. When they buy the lowest cost food they don’t see the long-term costs, the environmental costs, the costs of labor. Look at all the problems we’ve had with food coming in from China, even pet food, because there’s no oversight and no control. Well yeah, it’s cheap, but…”
Oogie points out that this valley produces an exceptional diversity of food, not just for local residents but food that farmers can export as well. “Most of it doesn’t go that far,” she says, “by and large it stays in Colorado. That’s something that oil and gas development completely threatens, because the customers who care about food and are willing to pay farmers a living wage to produce it, will not buy food if there’s even the perception of contamination. Doesn’t matter if it’s real or not. I’ve already seen ram sales down, because of the perception of the gas development that’s already going on up the Muddy.”
I ask Oogie to explain her attachment to this breed. “I like everything about them. They’re small, they’re easy to handle, they’re smart (this isn’t always good but I still like it—smart sheep can figure a way to get out and go places you don’t want them to), they’re easy to handle, even the rams. They don’t come after us, though they might bash each other a lot. They taste good, I like the wool, I like to work with it. Everything about them is really neat.
“They fit well on this farm: we can irrigate our orchard underneath the sheep and they’re not heavy enough to compact the soil. A bigger breed, we couldn’t irrigate under them.”
A sheep year at Desert Weyr goes like this: “Over winter we buy hay from our neighbor up the road. When spring comes, it’s shearing first, then vaccination, deworming, getting them ready to go out on pasture, then getting them out on pasture, and then lambing. We try to shear about 3 weeks before the first lambs are due.”
“Usually lambs come in late April and May with a secondary late lambing in June. Sheep are slaughtered at the USDA-approved Homestead facility in Delta starting the following June or July and it continues as we need to provide meat for our customers. This year we will have lambs in later March as part of this years’ experiment but that is not normal for us. “
This timing is “pretty much after the spring flush of grass has gone and we’re starting to cull down the flock to what we can carry through the drier times of summer.” The McGuires sell meat from their farm, as well as yarn, socks, and even some pure black wool.
Oogie also hosts the North Fork Fiber Guild, a loose-knit group that meets “usually in winter, usually Saturday, usually up here, because my looms are here and they’re not portable. I spin, knit, weave, quilt and sew, other people crochet, knit, tat, do their own thing, talk, chat, get suggestions, share what they’re doing. If you like to play with strings in any form you’re welcome.”
To join in the fiber fun, or to purchase Black Welsh Mountain sheep products from the ranch, you can contact Oogie via email, firstname.lastname@example.org, or find her tweeting from the field @Oogiem, or visit www.desertweyr.com.
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