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.

Counting Sheep Nonsense

Once in a while it is fun to just include nonsense about the sheep industry. In The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, March 11, 1921, “Under Cheerful Chirps (by “Del”) even states that “mostly nonsense,(that is the tidbits within this section of the newspaper) except in those rare intervals when a real idea comes along and is grabbed off”, the following appeared:   “Paul S. Coffin, out on Harlow Yaeger’s sheep ranch a few months ago, was asked by the latter to estimate how many sheep there were in a certain band. Paul looked carefully at the sheep, then replied: ‘Just 622.’  He had the number exactly right. Counting sheep in a band is very difficult and is to some extent quess work, so Harlow was surprised. ‘How did you find out?’ he asked. ‘Why, that was easy,’ said Paul. ‘I counted their feet and divided by four!’”

Earlier that year, in the same section of the paper, there was another similar tidbit, but this time the person said 500 sheep by counting the legs and dividing by 4. It must have been fun in the early part of 1921 to poke fun at the sheep industry. Of course, there wasn’t much else to say about it as it was going through some tough times just as was the cattle industry. Stay tuned for the rest of that story later in the week.

But back to counting the legs of sheep and dividing by four. My husband and I have watched on a few occasions the herders and shearers counting sheep. This particular time we were visiting Joe Manterola and his sheep outfit up near Williams, Arizona. The herders counted sheep for the shearers after they had tagged the sheep. Tagging removes the wool around the ewes eyes and from their bellies for when they give birth, their young can easily milk. Counting the sheep is necessary so the shearers know how many sheep they have tagged for their pay. I can assure you that this counting was not done by counting the legs and dividing by four as Mr. Coffin stated he did. There is definitely too much running, jumping and running in pairs by the sheep as they passed the counter to count legs! I had a difficult time just counting the sheep!

Here are some pictures and a video to show the activity.

Sheep are gathered together.
The herders begin to count.
The actual counting process.

January 1921 Wool Prices and Range Conditions

At the start of 1921, the sheep industry and for that matter, the cattle industry, were in bad shape. Both had seen good years during World War I as the government bought the meat and wool was used for making uniforms. It took wool from approximately twenty sheep to make all the needed clothes for one soldier.  But as 1920 ended wool prices were low, the Arizona range was dry, reducing feed for sheep and cattle, and many sheep men were concerned with the future of the industry. By the end of January there was hope that the wool situation had taken a turn for the better. The Salter Brothers, Boston wool brokers, had expressed in letters to M.I. Powers of the Citizens Bank, Flagstaff and Babbitt Brothers that there was considerable improvement in the wool market. The Salter Brothers were offering 30 cents per pound on wool three weeks ago. Two weeks ago, the price from another mill in Boston had offered 32 cents.  Another mill had offered to buy Arizona wool at 35 cents a pound. “Salter Bros. say that they feel once they have sold a block it will ease up the situation considerably and there will be money to loan on the new clip.” (Coconino Sun, Flagstaff, January 28, 1921)

For a perspective on those amounts: 30 cents in 1921 would be worth $4.37 today, 32 cents equivalent to $4.66 and 35 cents would be $5.09.  The sheep industry today would be thrilled to receive that type of money today for a pound of wool!

Range Conditions through most of 1920 were not good. The ranges were dry which reduced feed for livestock in many areas of the state. The outlook for 1921 seemed a little more promising as rains began to fall in the later part of January. Rain fell in the western portion of the state partially filling dry water holes and providing moisture for winter annuals to begin. A good inch of rain fell in Seligman vicinity. Yuma exceeded their monthly total for the month of January. The area received over a half inch. In the northcentral portion of Arizona snow had fallen but it melted without runoff to any stock ponds. The Grand Canyon and Williams areas had three inches of snow still on the ground. Water tanks were frozen though. The Coconino Sun, Flagstaff reported that some snow had been on the ground since winter began and livestock had been able to graze far from established water holes. The eastern and southern portion of the state reported to be in need of precipitation as the range was dry and water scarce. In the Douglas area the stock was in poor shape as water was scarce.

A Flagstaff observer reported, “Recent light snows melt within a few days after falling’ this moistens the ground, and will put it in good condition for farming, but it does not run and makes no stock water. Stock on the lower ranges adjacent to the San Francisco Peaks (the Canyon Diablo country, etc.) is wintering well as the weather has not at any time been severe and there is plenty of dry feed.” 

In other sections of the Coconino Sun, Flagstaff for January 28, 1921, we learn more about the condition of the range from sheep men who visited Flagstaff.  Returning from Phoenix, Lewis Benedict told of range conditions in the south as serious and there was a fear of heavy loss of sheep if the rains did not come soon.  In the Congress Junction area, William Pitts, foreman for the Howard Sheep Company, reported that the recent rains in the area had made good feed and the range had greatly improved in the last ten day. Two other sheep men, Harlow Yaeger and Charlie Woolfolk, who had winter sheep ranges in close proximity to one another, said that even with little rainfall in the area since last spring, the feed for their sheep was splendid.

Let us hope that our winter 2021 rains continue for the next several months with rain in the Salt River Valley and snow in the high country.  Slow melting snow in the high country with runoff will fill the stock ponds that both cattle and sheep men rely on and that water makes its way to the Salt River Valley for use by the farmers in the southern portion of the state.