Raising the next generation of rancher

Albert and Melody Villard are not only raising the next generation of sheep on their ranch, they're also bringing up the next generation of sheep ranchers.

Albert Villard knows a lot about sheep. He learned from his father, who learned from his father. The Villards have had a continuous land lease in Northwest Colorado since 1934, spanning three generations of sheep ranchers.

Albert's grandfather Felix came to the United States from France to help his brother raise sheep near Price, Utah. He was sometimes compensated for his work with sheep, which started the Villard sheep ranching legacy.

Albert's father, Clair, retired eight years ago, but he still goes to the lambing grounds for the annual lamb docking.

"I started in sheep when I was 14 years old." Clair Villard said. "After school got out, we would take care of the lambs."

About 25 people joined Albert and Melody in taking care of the lambs on a Saturday afternoon on the family's ranch north of Craig. They helped the family with the annual docking of the lambs.

The morning was spent rounding up many of the 1,100 sheep.

Friends and relatives turn the annual lambing operation into a social event, with old acquaintances being renewed and children playing nearby.

Jim Nicoletto enjoys the event so much he uses vacation time from the power plant to help out with the docking.

The procedure involves clipping ears, cropping tails, and castrating the ram lambs.

Friends and family have been helping out with the yearly ritual for as long as anyone can remember.

Fran and Louise Lux made the trip out this spring, as they do every spring, to help with the docking.

"We've done this probably 40 years now," Fran Lux said. "Our kids all grew up together."

The docking procedure operates like a well-oiled machine. A production line that allows each helper to perform a particular job.

As the sheep are rounded up and corralled, small groups are separated toward the front docking area. There, lambs are separated and each person begins their assigned tasks.

"The holders get the lambs and hold them for the dockers," Clair Villard said. "There will be dockers on each side. I imagine they'll do about 300 lambs today."

Clair and Bonnie's son Kevin has the task of docking the ewes in the bunch. He clips the ears, cuts the tails, and applies a green paint brand to the lambs' rear, all in about 30 seconds.

The males go through one more procedure.

"The castration part is important," Melody Villard said. "It's selective breeding. Otherwise, we would have lambs everywhere."

Docker Dwayne Zimmerman does that procedure the old-fashioned way. After cutting the tip of the scrotum with his knife, Zimmerman uses his mouth to hold the testicles while he finishes the removal with his free hands.

The speed at which he does this comes from years of experience.

About 40 seconds after the selection of the lamb, the procedure is over, and the two-week old lamb is back on the ground searching for its mother.

On June 3 the crews processed 380 lambs in about two hours.

"It would be a full-day's job without all this help," Albert Villard said, recalling the number of times they finished with the headlights from cars providing the light.

When Louise Lux finished painting brands on the lambs, she carefully stacked the docked tails in piles on the ground. This is one way to check the number of lambs processed on this day.

She puts the "keepers" in one stack, and the "go to market" tails in another.

Last year, the Villards kept about 250 ewes for breeding. It will take two years for them to produce their own lambs.

While the lambs are getting docked, Albert checked ewes for milk production. Dry ewes will be shipped out to market.

The family has a long history in sheep ranching in Moffat County.

In 1928, Felix and Marie Villard bought 4,600 acres on Black Mountain.

Albert recalls when his grandmother, Marie, took over the ranching operation in 1929 after her husband died of a heart attack. There was a great deal of anti-sheep sentiment in the county at that time, because of the numerous cattle ranches in the area.

"She was feisty," Albert said. "Her dad would come out and help. She had good family."

Her sons, Bert and Clair, attended school in Price, Utah, until they were old enough to help out on the ranch. They spent summers in Moffat County and winters in Utah.

By the 1940s, the family was living near Craig, and Marie had bought vacated homesteads.

Marie retired in 1968, and sons Bert and Clair took over operations, running the Villard Brothers ranch until Albert bought out Bert's share in 1992.

He later bought out his father upon Clair's retirement in 1998.

The Villard ranch operates on 14,000 deeded acres and 30,000 acres of state and Bureau of Land Management leased acres. The sheep are trucked to a winter range near Elk Springs each December.

Although Clair turns 79 this week, he says it's hard to be an expert on sheep.

"You never know everything about sheep," he said. "They're smarter than people give them credit for. They'll surprise you."

Today, the tradition continues as Albert and Melody raise 5-year-old Kelton, 2-year-old Chloe and 1-year-old Rylee in the way sheep families have raised their children for generations in Moffat County.

Kevin's wife, Tammy Villard, sums up the learning process for the children who attend the docking operations.

"Our children aren't bothered by this," she said. "They grew up around sheep. They're Villards. This is what they do."

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com

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