Shearing — Sheep de-wooled!
We shear sheep two times per year, and two times per year it is a crazy event. Over the years we have come up with a ritual. I suppose that it is easier than it was the first time, but it still is an EVENT.
Timing is Key
Timing can be the most difficult part of the process. First, we must work back and forth with the shearer to determine when he will be in the area to shear. There are far more sheep that need sheared than there are shearers to do the work, rule number 1 is to be kind to your shearer–they are worth their weight in gold. They are very hard to find and if you have a good one you want to establish a relationship with them. Our shearer covers hundreds of miles shearing, so it can be challenging to nail down a schedule.
Next, as with all farming activities, it’s all about the weather! Sheep need to be dry to shear. We have too many sheep and not enough barn to pen them up for more than a short period of time–so we monitor the weather and adjust the schedule accordingly.
Finally, our ideal time for spring shearing would be before the lambs are born. The fleeces are much cleaner, and the lambs can find the udder easier with a shorn mom. Unfortunately, we have been lambing in February/March and it is not a good time to take away their winter coats. For us, the next best time is when the lambs are at least a month old so that the penning and sorting is not quite as chaotic. It is still a crazy mess, but everyone is a little more at ease with a short separation and the lambs are big enough not to be trampled in the process.
This usually puts the activity in late April or May and is repeated in September or October.
Tools of the Trade
In preparation for shearing there are some items that I need to have set up. First, the catch pen needs to be in place. We pen them in a smaller area at the front of the barn. During shearing we sort off 10-15 at a time into the barn where the shearing is happening. Then they are pushed out the back door of the barn as they are done. I have an electric fence set up to create a path back through a gate to the pasture. It works well as far as the movement of the sheep through the barn goes. For the shearing surface we put down a couple of pieces of plywood. It provides an area for the sheared fleeces to drop. It is swept between sheep and kept clean so that the fleeces remain clean. We also use hog panel pieces to create a gate so that the waiting sheep cannot skip shearing and run to the exit. Outside the exit door I set up the skirting table.
Domino’s fleece on the Skirting Table
During the shearing process each fleece is carried out and put on the table. On a good shearing day, I can then skirt the fleece before bagging it. On a normal shearing day, I pull off some of the crud and put it in the bag to be skirted more thoroughly later, because I am too busy running back and forth. Some other items that we have at the skirting table are pen and post-it pad, 13-gallon un-scented garbage bags and a water bottle. Each of our fleeces is individually bagged. I use bright-colored post-it with the name of the sheep and shear date in the bag for later identification. I like the bright colors because they are easier to find later. If you are bagging the wool into burlap for the shearer to buy, then those steps can be eliminated.
Filling the Wool Bag
Lights, Camera, ACTION!
When it is go time, we need to catch the sheep. Our sheep are motivated by food, so for the most part it is not a hard job to get MOST of them into the catch pen. One person dumps a bucket of feed and they push and shove their way in, while a couple more people follow-up behind to coax the stragglers and close the gate, in theory. BUT there are always one or two that get wise to the trick. Those one or two will then spook a couple more and take off. This is a critical moment in the penning process– close the gate and be thankful for what you have or try to divert another in at the risk of losing more. I will admit that last time we sheared there was one ewe that we finally gave up on and she will have to wait until September for her clip.
Once the sheep are penned we push some in the barn and the first volunteer is selected from the group. There are always a couple of crazy ones that you want to get through first before they either decide to mow you over or jump through the window, glass and all. Maybe they have figured this out and this is their way of being first in line.
At this point the shearer begins working away, humming to the sheep, each of them taking about 5 minutes. I am picking up wool from the plywood, skirting the wool, bagging it and jumping in occasionally to give a vaccination. It is usually hot, so we have a fan running and drink lots of water. There is little time to ponder life’s questions or admire the shearing strokes. The occasional sheep has a weird tuft of wool left from the end of their tail or elsewhere. I often wonder if the other sheep make fun of those sporting a not so perfect haircut. One after another, until finally, the last few remain. Then there is one, and in my mind, there is a little celebration as that one is released. Ah, done!
Picking up Wool from the Shearing Floor
There will be time after the shearer leaves to clean up the mess. We head into the house to wash up and have a bite to eat. Ice cold lemonade tastes amazing after spending several hours rolling in wool.
Domino after he is sheared!
Our shearer shares some stories about the other sheep he has sheared on this trip, usually there are some complaints about crabby sheep or unhelpful customers. I wonder what stories he will share about our shearing event, maybe the barn is too cramped or how hot it was? He says we are on his good customer list, so that is a relief. Sometimes I think some of our sheep are not on his good sheep list. They are not always as cooperative as they could be, especially the most loved ones. They seem to think they should have special treatment and are not usually on their best behavior.
Only five months and we can do it all again!