University of Nevada, Reno

Sheep Industry of Northern Nevada

Sheepherder in corral with sheep

Like other Northern Nevada industries, sheep ranching has had its boom and bust eras. Many sheep empires have risen and fallen, with few enduring more than a few decades. Those ranchers who have been most successful have had their share of luck as well as business skills and ranching talents. The prices for mutton, wool and lambs have fluctuated wildly over the years, in concert with mining activity, general economic conditions, and synthetic fibers. Grazing restrictions on public lands put nomadic outfits out of business; surviving ranchers were those who acquired land and grazing permits. When labor shortages plagued the sheep outfits during and after World War II, ranchers came together to change immigration regulations and recruit herders from other parts of the world, notably the Basque Country. Severe droughts and snowstorms often cut into livestock profits; but sheep ranchers generally had fewer weather-related losses than cattle ranchers. Some of Nevada's most successful livestock operations have included both cattle and sheep, for good measure. Resilient sheepmen (and women) met all challenges that came their way.

To succeed in the Nevada world of sheep, boss and flockmaster had to be keen judges of men as well as sheep, dogs, and land.

— Clel Georgetta, Golden Fleece in Nevada.

Sheep have always played an important role in the economic history of Nevada. Family-run sheep ranches, large and small, have been and continue to be valued businesses in rural areas of the state, although the industry has declined by 40% since the 1970s. Many prominent Nevada families got their start in the sheep business, and the thriving Basque communities of Northern Nevada owe their origins to sheep ranching. An online photo collection documents almost 80 years of the sheep industry in Northern Nevada. For more information, consult a historical outline of the sheep industry in Nevada.

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