As each winter approaches, sheep ranchers in Moffat County place a series of bets.
Some can reap rewards. Others can break the bank. "With any agricultural business, you depend on Mother Nature," rancher John Maneotis said. "It's a gamble, like Las Vegas."
The drought that persisted through the summer of 2006 left much of Moffat County's rangeland dry and dusty, and sheep ranchers placed their bet by shipping their animals to greener pastures while others gambled on having their animals tough out the winter on home ranges.
Maneotis shipped about half of his sheep to California for the winter, a move that looks better with each snowfall and each day spent with the thermometer below zero.
"Winter got tough lately, but it was the summer drought that affected us more," he said. "It's management technology. You have to rent pasture because you don't want to hurt your range by pounding it all summer."
Maneotis said the sheep business in general has always been tough. Rising fuel prices are always hard on the ranchers, and that weighs on their decision to ship animals out of the county. With the price of hay soaring due to the continuing drought, Maneotis said shipping his sheep out of the state might pay off.
"You look at freight and high trucking costs, but it's probably a good move because of the hay situation here," he said. " There's no hay to buy, and if you can find it, it's not affordable. You might find hay for $200 a ton, or $7 to $8 a bale for the small bales."
Hay can be critical in the winter months because hard winters and snow can cause a lack of grazing pastures for the sheep.
Every day Maneotis drives 90 miles to tend to the sheep he didn't ship out near the Wyoming, Utah and Colorado borders.
It's a familiar process to sheep ranchers in Northwest Colorado.
He's continuing the tradition of raising sheep that his father started after moving to America from Greece in the 1920s.
A sheep tradition
Albert Villard also is following in the steps of his family.
His grandfather Felix came to America from France and started a sheep ranch.
Albert Villard normally winters his sheep near Elk Springs and Massadona west of Craig, but the drought has left much of that pasture too short to support the herd.
He decided to ride out the winter, keeping his herd on his land north of town between Craig and the Wyoming border.
His sheep were grazing on sagebrush and digging down to find grass until deep weekend snows covered the valley.
With help from a friend, Villard found hay to purchase near Vernal, Utah last fall, and since Monday has been spending his days feeding the herd.
"These sheep didn't know what to do at first," he said. "They had never eaten hay before."
Villard hauls the hay 4 miles each day down a county road he plows when necessary.
Sebino Paulino, his Peruvian sheepherder, stays with the herd through the snow and cold, and helps with the feeding operations.
Villard reloads his wagon for the next day's feeding, and lately has had an extra step thrown into his routine.
The below-zero cold has made it necessary to park the tractor down the road at a neighbor's house to plug in its engine heater each evening.
Villard expects the 250 tons of hay he purchased to last through the winter, and he hopes the nearby elk herds don't discover it.
At weather's mercy
The very cold evenings don't bother the sheep very much, Villard said.
"As long as they have a full belly at night, they just curl up," he said. "If they're in good, healthy shape, they do all right."
Villard would like to see more snowfall this winter, especially on Black Mountain, which would help with the drought conditions.
Maneotis was glad to see all the rain in September and October, even if it was too late to help the pastures, and he feels good about next year.
"I foresee good grazing next summer because of all that rain we got in the fall," he said. "I think we're going into spring with adequate moisture."
The sheep men work hard at their chosen professions, and each year they place their bets on what is best for the herd. But in this business, they are constantly at the mercy of the weather, as were their fathers and grandfathers before them.
Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or firstname.lastname@example.org.