Moffat County, located in the far northwest corner of Colorado, is sheep country and has been for a long time.
It is the second-largest county in Colorado with an area of more than 4,700 square miles, but as of 2010 had a population of only 13,795, which leaves plenty of land for the sheep.
The Yampa and Snake rivers flow through the high-desert ecosystem that’s predominately mountains, hills, and sagebrush.
The term “high desert” does not really do it justice, as it is magnificent country and perfect for free-range sheep.
Sheep ranchers have been in the area around Craig, Colo., since before the Sheep Wars raged in Colorado between 1870 and 1920.
One of the multi-generational ranches in the Craig area is the historic, third-generation Villard Ranch, which began operations in Colorado in 1928. On the Villard Ranch they take great pride in continuing to raise sheep in much the same way that “Grandma Villard” did it over 80 years ago.
“The sheep industry has seen many changes in eighty years, but one thing that has not changed is the way that the Villard sheep are raised,” said Melody Villard. “They are a free-range herd, moved from the lower country in the winter to the fattening grasses of the high country summer pastures.
“Our sheep and lambs are natural from the ground up. Raised with sunshine, green grass, clean air and fresh mountain water.”
The Villard Ranch is a family operation run by Albert and Melody Villard with help from their four children — 12-year-old Kelton, and his sisters, 9-year-old Chloe, 8-year-old Rylee and 5-year-old Tess.
The Villards also employ two guest workers, who are contracted through the H-2A Program.
Like many ranching operations, sheep ranching does not require large numbers of employees to operate.
The cowboy practice of “neighboring” works just fine on a sheep ranch, so when it comes time for labor-intensive operations like docking, family and friends get together to help out.
The best analogy to a sheep docking in the cattle world would be a “branding.”
“It is kind of a social outing, when you work for three weeks and haven’t had a whole lot of people around, to have a big crew like this and get to visit is great.” Melody said. “Some of these folks, we see them three times a year. And that’s when we are docking, crossing, or shipping.”
At a docking, like a branding, there are a lot of animal-husbandry operations that must be performed.
Sheep are branded, but instead of a hot iron, a short, cold branding iron is dipped into a specially formulated, paint-like branding fluid that is non-toxic to the sheep and impervious to the weather. Sheep are also ear-marked just like cattle.
Docking means “to cut” and the tails of the lambs are cut about 6 inches from the body, which leaves enough so they can wag their tails.
“It’s cleaner, otherwise the poo sticks to them, and it gets maggots in it,” said Jim Nicoletto. “It’s more hygienic and, for the breeding stock, it’s easier for them to breed.
The bot fly lays its eggs in the urine and feces that are stuck to the tail. The eggs hatch and the maggots enter the lamb to feed on it and the result is a miserable death to the lamb and the loss of income for the rancher.
Another function performed at a docking is castration.
“We castrate sheep to control breeding, ensure the quality of the meat, preserve the color of the wool, and save the range land from overgrazing,” said Albert Villard. “Our land will only sustain 1,200 animals right now and uncontrolled breeding would ruin it.”
A Unique Form of Castration
Castration is a standard practice, but the Villard method, which is the same that has been used for more than a hundred years, is rather unique.
The bag or scrotum is pulled toward the docker. He cuts the end of it off to reveal the testicles.
He pushes the bag toward the lamb to expose more of the testicles. It turns out that sheep testicles are extremely slippery, and rather than making multiple attempts and digging around inside the sheep, the docker bites down on the testicles and pulls them out. The sheep is rolled up onto his tail to stop the bleeding.
After being paint branded, the lamb is set on the ground and runs off to find his mother.
There are some that advocate use of rubber bands. These are small and very strong rubber bands. They have to be opened with specialized pliers and placed on the bag behind the testicles and next to body of the lamb.
The bands crush the blood vessels and, after a week of agony, the testicles die and fall off. The upside for the proponents of this method is that there is no blood.
“If we rubber banded a lamb and put it in that pen, it would go and lay in the corner, kick and be miserable for an hour. But the ones we dock with a knife we’ll set them on the ground and they will run off looking for their mothers,” said Jim Nicoletto.
Keeping the family business going
Three generations of Villards have worked the ranch.
The land is currently divided between all the siblings, but the sheep operation is just Albert and Melody Villard.
“It’s getting harder and harder to stay in business,” Melody said. “We’ve got four kids that we would love to see take this on and continue with the ranch.
“To secure what we are doing so another generation can continue to do it is challenging — but we have four good reasons to do it.”
Melody continued, “The kids are going to have a tough row to hoe to stay in business, but they have the best upbringing they can have. They’re learning these things from the ground up. They have seen death and they have seen life. They’ve seen the whole circle of that. They understand doctoring these animals. Our kids get to see all that and they are very hands-on. They are involved with what is going on here. They’re not sitting in front of a computer screen wondering where chicken nuggets come from.” ❖