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Postcard from the Past: History of Sheep Raising

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

After recently re-reading the great book “A History of Sheep Raising in the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming” by notorious sheep man John Niland of Rawlins and Cheyenne, I had to pass along some of his remarks. 

First, I’ll share his chapter titled “The Sheep Arrive” and later I’ll post additional Postcards from the book. 

After opening with the first chapter entitled, “Cattle Country,” Niland writes in the second chapter:

The Sheep Arrive

Cattle operations which survived the “winder” of 1886-87 were, of necessity, situated along the rivers and streams of Wyoming. Cattle require water year-round and rely on rivers and streams that do not freeze completely in the winter. 

Water also made it possible to irrigate and raise hay and grain to supplement feed in the case of bad winter weather. 

Cattle could still be turned out on open range in good weather, if the grass upon which they fed was plentiful. In the summer, cattle were turned loose to forage what they could find and were generally rounded up in the fall for artificial feeding near home.

The Great Divide Basin was never used much by cattle operations because it could not supply the water cattle need year-round or much of the grasses upon which they feed. A large part of the Great Divide Basin had no rivers running into or out of it, and it only a few creeks. A lot of land wasn’t and couldn’t be used by cattle because of lack of water. 

The feed available in the desert was a shrub-like browse more often than grass. At best, cattle made a peripheral use of the desert.

Before the turn of the century, some sheep were brought in from Oregon, and they did very well in the desert. These first sheep operations were primarily concerned with the production of wool, since in those days it was impractical to ship lambs. 

The browse available on the desert, including salt sage, sage brush, greasewood and whatever else grew, produced an excellent wool crop. And, because sheep, unlike cattle, can get by on snow alone in the wintertime, the arid terrain was not a problem. 

The sheep would winter on the desert and could be moved to the mountains to summer in the high, rough areas where there was browse, brush, flowers and other types of plants cattle couldn’t use, as well as water.

Cattle and sheep ranching were compatible, contrary to what the television westerns would lead us to believe. 

Because cattle and sheep have different demands for feed and water, many areas were noncompetitive, suitable primarily for one or the other. In areas suitable for both sheep and cattle, the timing and use of the land was noncompetitive. 

In the summer, while the sheep grazed in mountainous areas unsuitable for cattle, the cattle were turned loose to forage what they could.

In winter, when the cattle wintered near home, sheep were moved to areas cattle had grazed the previous summer. Difficulties sometimes arose, but they often were more political than practical, at least in this part of the world.

Shrinking cattle numbers created a void in the peripheral use of many arid areas of the state, like the Great Divide Basin. 

The range sheep business began moving in to fill this void. The sheep business grew as the cattle business temporarily waned, first in the noncompetitive areas.

Chapter three is titled, “Early Sheep Men,” but then, that’s a tale for the next time we gather at the sheep wagon.

The book is a copyright of John Niland, 1994, with my copy being limited edition number 118 of 150. John passed away in 2015, but if he was still alive today, he would welcome the use of this story in the Wyoming Livestock Roundup

It would undoubtedly cost me a shot or two of good whiskey, but it would be well worth sharing a drink and a story with John again.

Those who haven’t read John’s book, have missed out on the real history of the sheep industry in Wyoming.

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