Sheepmen in Dire Situation

Earlier I had written in this blog about the beginnings of 1921 wool prices and range conditions.  My last blog was the “spoof” method of counting sheep.  But there really wasn’t any good reason to poke fun at the sheep industry. While the first part of 1921 saw the much-needed rains beginning to fall which would be a benefit for livestock, i.e., sheep, research continuing for the first half of 1921, showed that different parts of the state were suffering more from the drought than other parts.

Take for example William Pitts stating in late January that where he oversaw Howard Sheep Company bands near Congress Junction, that the recent rains had made good feed and that the area had greatly improved over the last ten days.  (Congress Junction is northeast of Phoenix toward Wickenburg)

Then there is the statement from Lewis Benedict who had arrived from Phoenix stating that range conditions in the south were serious and he feared for the loss of sheep if the rains did not come soon to provide feed for the animals. George Morse reported on February 18th that the sheep men were feeding corn to their flocks as the range was providing no feed.  The little rain that has fallen has not produced the necessary grasses needed to feed all the herds.  With lambing in progress, it was necessary to feed the corn to keep ewe and lamb healthy.

On the eastern slopes of the San Francisco peaks, Harlow Yaeger and Charlie Woolfolk, both having sheep near or in Canyon Diablo said that though they had not seen rain since last spring, their winter range had splendid feed. The report in the section of the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, January 28, 1921, “Livestock and Ranges in Arizona”, stated that the feed was dry on that side of the mountain but still good for grazing.

The beginning of March saw once again the rains returning but once again they were only favorable to some parts of the state. The slow soaking rain began on a Saturday and continued until Monday helping the ranges in the southern portion of Cochise County but only a small amount of measurable precipitation fell on the northern portion of the county. In Arizona, the northeastern plateau region has seen little measurable rainfall resulting in necessary feeding of livestock. Animals are grazing close to water holes that are slowly drying up. The warmer temperatures had decreased snowpack on the mountains but there is little runoff and thus water holes are not being replenished.

Some sheep men had received appreciable amounts of rain or were in ranges that their sheep were not affected. The Coconino Sun for March 18, reported, Colin Campbell, whose range was near Ash Fork, “came in Tuesday morning to work off some of his happiness over the copious rain that had just fallen in his section of the country.”  Jack LeBarron and others had their winter range in the Prescott National Forest and reported to the newspaper, “conditions were pretty bad with most of the sheepmen, however for himself, John Hennessy, Harry Gray and a few others who wintered high up in the forest did not come out as badly as those who wintered on the desert, where there was neither grass nor water. The growers wintering in the forest were not forced to buy feed, though it was a tight squeeze. Conditions were improved by the recent rain and indications are that the sheep will come back from the Prescott forest in fairly good shape.”

But that would not be the story for most of the sheep men. By late March it was reported that the sheepmen had not seen such drought conditions in twenty years. The article stated, “Central and southern Arizona are undergoing the worst drought in twenty years. No rain has fallen in these sections since October. The desert areas around Phoenix that are usually covered with grass and weeds during the winter and spring months are as dry as a brick yard. Losses in livestock are becoming serious, and unless there is relief soon the death rate will be the highest in years. Sheep are all very thin and the lamb crop may not, according to reports from the ranges, exceed twenty per cent, less even than the ewe losses at the present time. Most of the flocks are being held back in the foot- hills where there is coarse herbage of a kind that sheep will eat under stress of starvation. Corn and cotton seed cake were hauled out in some cases to the herds, but not much relief was thus offered, the sheep being too far out in the hills to be fed regularly in this manner. Approximately 100,000 head have been taken into the Salt River valley pastures, where hay, ensilage and other kinds of roughage are being fed during the lambing season. This means of relief, however, hasn’t been entirely satisfactory for the reason that the ewes do not seem to give milk enough to support the lambs, most of them dying in four or five days.”

The article continued stating that the poor range conditions had delayed and disorganized the shearing for the season too. The ewes were too weak after delivering their young to move to the shearing sheds that area usually set up in specific locations and that the price for the shearer was more than the sheep men could afford to pay. Some of the sheep were going to be sheared at small portable shearing stations near where the flock was located. Any shearing that was undertaken was being done by non-union local shearers who demanded less money and would not need boarding during the shearing season. Some of the sheep men were even considering shearing their flocks once they moved them back to summer grazing. But that was another problem in and of itself. With weak animals, to trail them over the rugged land with no prospect of food would further reduce their flocks. To take the animals by train was an option, but a costly one. Freight rates were high, but there were negotiations underway at the time to have reduced rates for the spring shipping season to help the sheep men in their most dire needed time.

With the poor economic conditions for the sheep men, it was no wonder that the men of the National Wool Growers’ Association were asking for federal aid for the industry. Stay tuned for that story next.