Open Range Sheep Ranching

Dad on the IK Bar which is now Vail Ski Resort

Dad on the IK Bar which is now Vail Ski Resort

In the 1940s, Perry Olson, a Colorado rancher ran 10,000 (ten thousand) head of sheep on Taylor Grazing in the mountains near my Uncle Frank’s ranch— the IK Bar Ranch—at what is now Vail Colorado. To get there they traveled along Hwy 6 which ran past the IK Bar.

My father, Ernie Hartnagle told us a herder and his dog drove a small group of “pilot” sheep (about 30 head) in front of the procession. The rest of the sheep followed. A few men and dogs worked the flanks to keep the sheep from going off in the timber. The sheep in the middle pretty much kept following. Occasionally, the drags would want to stop and graze so they would need to be urged on. Gore Creek ran along the South side of the route and in some places there was highway fence on the North side which kept the sheep from straying off.

He said, sheep walked by the ranch all day long….from early morning until late afternoon. Usually sometime around five o’clock or so Perry would stop at the ranch for a short visit and some refreshments. He usually had several herders and about five or so dogs with him. They’d usually stop and visit. That night they bedded down at the Ranger Station. Early the next morning at daybreak they headed to the Gore Range.

Notes About Open Range Sheep Ranching from Alonzo Fernandez

In the spring we drove the sheep herd to the Brazos [Mountains] which was 80 miles one way. The goats actually lead the sheep and we would encourage them along from the flanks and the rear. Every so often the lead would get too far ahead and someone would go the front and hold them until we could bring up the older ewes, stragglers, and the smaller lambs. That sheep drive took about two weeks. The herd would essentially double after lambing.

Once we got the summer range with the sheep, we would leave someone to watch the sheep and the rest of us would go back and get the cattle herd. It took a week with the cattle on the same trail. Once we had both herds, we would rebuild the fence that was knocked down during the winter and put new fences to make smaller areas for the cattle. We would regularly push the cattle to the higher country to let the grass grow in the lower country until the fall. A couple of weeks towards the fall, we would quit pushing the cattle and let them gather in the lower meadows so that roundup would be easier. There would be few cows that we had gather from the high country because they wouldn’t come down with the rest. After the first snowfall we headed the sheep and cattle back to lower country. It would melt off somewhat and away we went. It was cold all the way home. It was like that every year.

The dogs were an all too important element of the operation. In fact, one couldn’t really function without them. Work around the ranch would have been so much more difficult. The infusion of the Australian Shepherds into our operations never ceased to amaze me. Their ability to size up what we were doing and jump in and take over still boggles my mind to this day. Unlike the one Border Collie that we had, the Australian Shepherds we had were specialists in close order techniques. They were always in eyesight of their handlers and wouldn’t work outside that perimeter like the Border Collie would. Another important feature about the Australian Shepherds was their versatility in being able to work with both sheep and cows. They were great companions as well.

Joe Fernandez and Feo - February 1961

Joe Fernandez and Feo – February 1961

As a side note: We probably had maybe thirty or forty nondescript goats. They made up part of marker system. Every night we counted our marker to see if we still most of the sheep hear in tact. Markers were made up of black sheep, goats, painted sheep with number usually 1-30 and any unique members of the herd that was memorable or hard to miss in our minds. If a count of all the markers were present and accounted for, it was certain to a degree that all the herd was present. The theory was any part of the herd became separated during the day, there was a likely chance that a marker or two would be with them. Didn’t always work, but most of the time it did. If it was determined that part of the herd was missing, a quick sweep of the area where they grazed was searched until they were found. The act of finding a lost sheep takes on a more meaningful roll now as a Christian.

Even then our job with the sheep during the winter was never ending especially during lambing. Nobody slept a decent night during that time. As kids, a lot of responsibility was thrust upon us and I think we were all the better for it.

Warren Livestock Company 

By 1935, sheep raised in the United States were numbered at 51.8 million with 60 percent being raised in the western states. David Cook, who was the foreman for the Warren Livestock Company in Wyoming from 1920 to 1961, wrote, “From the time sheep were introduced into Wyoming, the dog has played an important role in the sheep industry. If not for the assistance of these faithful animals, herding large numbers of sheep would have been impossible. Many times the dog saved the lives of sheep and herders, especially in storms. When a storm suddenly appeared, the herder could not have gathered the herd and brought them to shelter had it not been for the dogs.”

Raising good sheep dogs was a necessary part of any large sheep operation. The shepherds needed dogs that were fearless and could stand up to an obstinate ram. It was customary to give each herder a pair of working dogs and a pup. That way, if anything happened to one of the dogs, he would have another to fall back on. After many years of working almost all breeds of sheep dogs including old fashioned farm collies, Border Collies and Kelpies, Cook said, “For our purpose, the small blue and white Australian Shepherd, often with a so-called “glass eye”, became the most satisfactory dog we used.” The ranch acquired their first pair, named Maggie and Jiggs. “These dogs turned out to be the breeding stock which was used to produce our future generations of sheep dogs.” According to Cook, one of the main reasons Aussies were preferred over other breeds was due to their stamina and power to move large numbers of sheep in the harsh western conditions of the open range.

Copyright © 2009 by Jeanne Joy Hartnagle-Taylor and Ty Taylor. All Rights Reserved.