John Wellman shows off his Moffat County Fair Grand Champion wool from the Corriedale sheep. Wool buyers look at the fineness and length of the fiber, as well as the crimp, or zigzag folds in the wool, to determine the wool's quality. Cleanliness also is a factor in the wool's value.

Photo by Dan Olsen

John Wellman shows off his Moffat County Fair Grand Champion wool from the Corriedale sheep. Wool buyers look at the fineness and length of the fiber, as well as the crimp, or zigzag folds in the wool, to determine the wool's quality. Cleanliness also is a factor in the wool's value.

Quality in the fibers

The Wellmans and their award-winning wool

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— Back when Moffat County wool was considered by some to be the king of crops in Colorado, buyers would come to the growers in Northwest Colorado and negotiate a price for their fleece.

Rancher John Wellman hopes a recent resurgence of natural fibers in the clothing industry will make wool buyers appreciate the quality of the product coming from his ranch.

"Wool is an excellent insulator," he said. "It can absorb 75 percent of its weight in water without feeling wet."

The Corriedale herd on Wellman's ranch south of Hamilton produces quality wool that is highly sought after by wool buyers.

A portion of that quality is because of the ranch's Northwest Colorado location, Wellman said.

"Some ranchers blanket their sheep to keep the wool clean," he said. "We can't do that here because of the brush, but the area here keeps the fleeces quite clean."

Clean wool is only one criterion used when it comes to evaluating a fleece.

Fineness and length of the fiber, as well as the crimp, also are key factors in producing a quality product.

The crimp is the zigzag pattern found in the wool fibers. Commercial processors like a tight crimp, while wool spinners prefer a bold crimp, Wellman said.

"Spinners or mills don't care for straight wools," he said. "Straight wools don't hold together that well."

Hand spinners also prefer colored wool for a natural look, while commercial buyers want white wool they can dye.

Good genetics and breeding have increased the fineness of wool fibers throughout the years, and Wellman has kept pace with technology.

"We keep 10 to 20 percent of the white-face ewe lambs to build the herd," he said. "Then, we select rams with good characteristics. It's an ongoing process."

Wellman said his herd produces medium grade wool with a longer staple, or fiber length.

"The national trend is toward longer fibers, so you're breeding for longer staple and finer fibers," he said. "Some of the best wool in the country comes from this area."

Wellman can back up that statement, as his w ool was awarded Grand Champion at the Moffat County Fair this year, and it has consistently finished in the top 30 percent at the National Western Stock Show, the country's largest wool competition.

A tradition of ranching

The Wellman Ranch, on the Moffat and Rio Blanco county line, began when John's great-grandfather, Harrison Wilber Wellman, purchased the D.D. Ferguson Ranch in 1912.

The elder Wellman had already filed on a nearby Milk Creek homestead, but the Ferguson ranch came up for sale and he acquired the property.

Harrison Wellman increased the ranch's size by buying neighboring ranches during the Great Depression.

John's grandfather, also named Harrison Wilber Wellman, chose a military career with the U.S. Army Air Corps, flying in both World Wars and eventually becoming Commander of Lowry Air Force Base.

John's father, Doug Wellman, came back to the ranch after college at Colorado A&M and completing ROTC instruction on Okinawa.

Doug Wellman doubled the ranch's size by purchasing smaller ranches when they came on the market.

He ran sheep and cattle on the ranch in the 1970s. A combination that still works well today, John Wellman said.

"On this ranch, the sheep and cattle compliment each other," he said. "In spring we are really busy with branding, calving and lambing."

Different seasons

About the time the Wellmans are docking lambs, it's also time to start irrigating the hay pastures.

High school kids are recruited to help with the lamb and calf operations in the spring, and a hired hand from Peru helps attend to the herd in the summer.

The Wellmans have no winter pastures, preferring to ship off sheep each fall to the feed lots, while keeping the replacement ewes close by.

"The sheep spent a month on Thornburg Mountain, and they came back down today," John's wife Debbie said Wednesday. "Everything stays here at home in the winter."

Winter means feeding the sheep hay and corn when the grazing is not an option. Hay comes from pastures irrigated by Milk Creek.

The Wellmans say they have chosen a "great lifestyle" in sheep ranching.

Raising both sheep and cattle on the ranch has its benefits, John said, but as to which of the animals is more difficult to handle.

"They both have pluses and minuses," he said. "But it doesn't hurt as much if a sheep runs over you."

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

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