Southwest Idaho sheep rancher Frank Shirts likes the look of this year’s lambs.
“They’re healthy. The feed has been pretty good,” said Shirts, whose operation is based near Wilder. “The lambs are good lambs.”
His sheep drew a crowd April 20, when they crossed the busy intersection of the north-south Idaho Highway 55 and Beacon Light Road north of Eagle, a quickly growing community in the Boise metro area. Pedestrians and motorists stopped to view the annual spectacle as more than 2,000 animals, and a crew of herders and dogs, trekked to higher pasture.
Shirts moves the sheep from low ground near Wilder to high-elevation pasture east and north, on state and U.S. Forest Service land in the Idaho City-Atlanta area. He said the lambs will “follow the green in the high country” and stay until August, when they will be shipped to market.
The lambs’ weight gain can change from year to year, depending on range conditions. A late frost can kill flowers and forbs the lambs eat, reducing the animals’ contentment and weight.
“Right now, everything looks good and they will just keep climbing, following the feed,” Shirts said.
His lambs had a good winter, with favorable weather and a strong survival rate, he said. Last year’s class also was good despite an unusually snowy January that prompted the rancher to feed them for an extra month.
What the sheep rancher does not want is snow and rain in the first couple of months of the calendar year. “That’s hard on the lambs,” Shirts said.
Though January 2017 saw the most snow in southwest Idaho in decades, the lack of a traditional thaw that month helped the lambs, he said.
Shirts is running 2,300 to 2,400 sheep to the high country. Headcount will be 1,600 to 1,700 after he sells lambs this summer. Then, two groups of ewes will be combined into a single winter band and joined by bucks. Ewes will graze on different routes. They will head back to lower ground starting around Oct. 10 and eventually start grazing alfalfa. Ewe shearing is expected near the end of October.
He has downsized total operations by about a third in the last few years due to environmental and other regulatory concerns, labor issues and global market factors including unrestricted lamb imports, he said.
“The sheep are the best environmental tool in the forest, but the environmentalists don’t agree,” Shirts said. Their grazing helps remove fire fuels such as forbs, brush and weeds, he said.