View Full Version : Cattle and Sheep Wars Question
01-23-2012, 09:36 PM
I'm having trouble understanding what the Sheep Wars in the western US from 1870 - 1921 were all about.
According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep_Wars) the cattlemen saw the sheepherders as invaders, and that the sheep would ruin their shared grazing land.
Were sheep really that destructive? Wouldn't overgrazing by cattle cause as much damage as overgrazing by sheep? Please enlighten me.
01-23-2012, 10:41 PM
Sheep, having smaller teeth and mouths, can graze grass shorter than cattle can. Therefore it is easier for sheep overgrazing to make pasture unsuitable for cattle than vice versa.
01-23-2012, 11:01 PM
It was thought so at the time but I think most of it was not wanting to share the free range. The big ranchers also tried to discourage the small ranchers and homesteaders.
Another factor is that they didn't manage their grass very well. They would just turn their herds/flocks out on open range without as many water sources as today and the areas close to water would get overgrazed since animals won't travel very far from water. My father's ranch has no natural water sources. The area is mentioned in a cowboy's autobiography from the early 1900's as only being suited for spring grazing. In the years since then, many earthen dams have been added and after a severe drought a few years ago, well water has been piped out to several places. The land has also been cross-fenced so the cattle can be rotated through the pastures. This gives the land a chance to rest.
It has been found that grazing sheep with cattle can be actually beneficial depending on the types of vegatation available. Sheep,cattle and goats all prefer different plants. Stocking just one species leads to them eating their preferred grasses/plants and the plants they don't like have an advantage of not being eaten.
01-24-2012, 12:30 PM
Basically they were just turf wars. The open range was unregulated and its use was pretty much a free-for-all. In most cases, the cattlemen were there first and they tended to regard certain sections of range as their own by right of possession even though their legal claim to it was often shakey to nonexistant.
Cattle ranching requires a larger investment and a fairly permanent base of operations whereas a lot of sheep graziers were fly-by-night outfits that ran their bands wherever and whenever they could. The turnaround time for investment in a band of sheep is much shorter than for a herd of cows. This allowed the sheep people to jump into the business, free-range their bands wherever it was convenient, then sell out at a quick profit.
Both cattle and sheep can overgraze a range and cause long-term damage....the problem for the cattlemen was that often the sheepmen were overgrazing the country before the cattlemen could get to it and overgraze it. In the days before range management was a recognized field, both groups could and did do a lot of damage. The myth that cattle would not graze where sheep had been is just that - a myth. If the sheep left anything to eat, cows would happily come in and finish it off. Also, the "old west" story about how cowboys hate sheep is largely mythical. A lot of old-time ranchers, and even some today run both cattle & sheep. The cattle are for long-term financial gain and stability, the sheep for quick profit and cash flow.
01-24-2012, 12:41 PM
I wonder too if any of the people in the old west in the late 1800's had memories of Scotland; where the sheep farmers coming in was a prelude to the scots lords saying "Hoot mon, all ye peon farmers get the hell off my ancestral land." I would not be partial to sheep either if it has just cost my family or parents their land and livelihood...
01-24-2012, 10:13 PM
The cattlemen-sheepherders dislike is still around!
I had a cattle rancher friend from out in the Dakota, who was just outraged by the movie Brokeback Mountain.
Because people called it a 'gay cowboy' movie, and he insisted 'they were not cowbys, they were damned sheepherders!
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