In just under two weeks – the Saturday before Mother’s Day, in fact – we’ll shear our sheep. While wool isn’t our most valuable product, we do put a great deal of thought into our preparations – a quality wool clip, regardless of how much wool we’re marketing, is worth more money. Shearing day itself is an intense and enjoyable day of community work. Here’s how the day typically goes….
6:30 a.m. – I head out to the shearing barn and make sure the ewes I’d locked in the night before are still there – they are! I set up electro-net fencing for a paddock where the sheep will graze after they’re shorn. Then I hang the first wool pack from the stand and wait for everyone else to show up.
7:30 a.m. (or so) – Derrick arrives and we start setting up the shearing stall. Derrick sets up his equipment; I help by leveling his shearing board. We catch up on baseball and current events!
8:00 a.m. – Our “students” arrive – we typically have a shearing and wool handling workshop in conjunction with shearing day. Mostly we have the students learn how to skirt fleeces and evaluate the wool, but we also describe the various jobs involved in shearing day. They help me spread canvas tarps under the skirting table (tarps help reduce additional wool contamination – natural fiber tarps are much preferred to poly tarps).
8:15 a.m. – Derrick starts shearing the first pen of sheep. We use a bullpen set up, which means we bring 8 (+/-) ewes into the shearing stall. Derrick catches each sheep, shears it, and lets it go. When he catches the last sheep in the pen, we let the shorn sheep out. He finishes the last sheep; we run it out to the paddock and bring 8 more into the shearing pen (from an adjacent pen that will hold 16-20 ewes).
One person is always in the stall with Derrick. This person keeps the other sheep out of the way while Derrick is shearing. He calls out the ear tag number of each sheep as it’s being shorn (shearing day is one of the times we take inventory). He (or she) also picks up the sheared fleeces and hands them through the pen gate. Finally – and most importantly, this person sweeps up constantly – which keeps manure and wool scraps out of the good wool. If a ewe happens to urinate, this person also mops up the urine – a wet shearing floor is dangerous to the shearer; wet wool can foul the wool sack. We make sure the broom in the shearing stall is a straw broom – synthetic fibers can also contaminate the wool.
Once the wool is handed out of the pen, another person takes the fleece and spreads it on the skirting table. An accomplished wool grader can throw it onto the table – I’m still learning. At our shearing, a committee skirts the fleeces – removing manure tags, vegetable matter (stickers and other vegetation), and other contaminants. We also test the wool for strength and fiber length. Short or “tender” fleeces are sorted off and marketed separately from our good wool. Once each fleece is skirted, it’s handed off to the person who puts it into the wool pack (this year, we’ll have several kids handle this job!). As the pack fills up, someone (usually me) climbs in and stomps the wool into the sack. The best stompers walk in a circular pattern around the edge of the sack – this way the wool catches on the edge of the pack and remains compressed.
During all of this work, the holding pen will empty. With a couple of helpers (and a dog), I bring another group of sheep into the sorting alley. Lambs are sorted off; ewes go into the holding pen. Since we shear on a weekend, both of our daughters usually with the sorting. I suppose it’s sheepherder pride, but there’s nothing like seeing your daughters work their own dogs and handle sheep like a pro! And I should note – this will be the first year that our oldest daughter isn’t here for shearing. I’ll admit it will feel a bit a strange!
12:30 p.m. – Derrick, as the shearer, sets the lunch hour. We typically order pizza; more traditional operations have a home cooked meal (someday….). We all wash up and gather in the shade outside – lunch is usually a full hour, which allows for some rest in addition to refueling.
1:30 p.m. – We resume shearing. By this time, we’re looking forward to the end of the sheep!
4:30 p.m. – Derrick likes to shear the bucks (rams) last – this avoids problems with unintended breeding! Rams are bigger, stronger, and potentially more aggressive – they can be dangerous to handle. While all of our rams are reasonably docile, we handle them with a great deal of respect.
5:30 p.m. – When we catch the last ram, I almost always say, “That’s the one we’ve been looking for.” We then sack the last of the wool, clean up the skirting area, put the rams back in their holding pens, and breakdown the shearing equipment. The adults on the crew usually enjoy a beer while we’re cleaning up; the kids have a soda. Derrick gives us our bill (we pay for set up plus a per-head charge). We settle up, shake hands, and Derrick leaves. Then we move our sheep onto a fresh paddock for the night.
As I said, shearing is intense work – for the shearer, certainly, but also for the shepherd. The organization that goes into shearing day is incredibly important. Success, at least for me, is a day in which no sheep or people are injured or stressed. Success means the shearer never has to wait on us to get sheep to him (or her). Success means the wool is sorted and packed and stored – and prepared for marketing.
But shearing is also something else. As we were cleaning up last year, my friend and partner Roger said, “You know what I really liked about today? The sense of community.” And he was right! For the first half the day, we had students helping us (along with our friends and fellow shepherds). After lunch, it was just our friends – and our collective children. Working together, we made a long day seem fun. We watched our friends’ kids learn about sheep and handling wool; I watched my own children teach the younger kids and handle sheep on their own. Finally, as I’ve written before, shearing is one of the mileposts in our year – it’s a chance to see how we’ve done managing our sheep over the last 12 months. I think about shearing day every time I put on a woolen garment.