Shear Your Own Sheep

A professional shearer shares the ins and outs of at-home wool removal, setting you up for a safe, humane experience every time.

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Stephany Wilkes

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For the past eight seasons (January through July in my neck of the woods), I’ve sheared thousands of sheep throughout Northern California, Washington, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota, and Colorado. Some of my more hands-on small-flock customers have expressed an interest in learning how to shear their own sheep.

Enough folks have asked that I now offer private shearing lessons, but I want to address this DIY interest for a larger audience. This article covers how to shear sheep at home in a safe and humane manner, with a straightforward, cost-effective setup. This method supports the widest variety of body types, ages, and physical abilities.

Why Shear Your Own Sheep?

Over time, humans have bred the wool-shedding genes out of domesticated sheep, making shearing a necessity. In fact, it’s inhumane not to shear sheep at least once a year. Finding a skilled, reliable shearer can be difficult, however, so learning the skill yourself is worthwhile. Plus, shearing is the ideal time to examine sheep for weight and body condition; hoof and horn growth; and other issues, including bumps, lumps, hernias, flystrike, mastitis, arthritis, and nasal bots. Best of all, flock owners don’t have to shear 25, 50, or 100 sheep in a single day. You can go as slowly and carefully as you like, and shear as many or as few sheep as you’re able while you get the hang of things.

Proper equipment selection and setup account for 90 percent of safe, humane shearing, and 10 percent is care and attention­…–…no problem for shepherds who love their sheep.

Equipment and Setup

These are the items you’ll need when shearing your own sheep. You can find them online and at farm supply stores. (I prefer McWilliams Shearing and Supplies in Miles City, Montana. The owner, Ralph McWilliams, is one of the best shearers in the country. He’ll be able to answer questions and recommend products for your needs.)

Milking stand. There are several different styles of sheep-shearing. The dominant professional style is the New Zealand style. With this method, the shearer uses their own legs to hold, control, and move the sheep, using one hand to pull the skin taut to avoid nicks, and the other to move the handpiece. This method was designed for fast, efficient, and safe shearing in volume for the commercial wool industry, in which hundreds or thousands of sheep must be sheared each day. The fleece comes off in one piece, in the shape of an unzipped vest, to reduce wool waste.

Learning the New Zealand method takes a lot of training and practice, and implementing it requires a great deal of physical strength and endurance. It’s a terrific method (you can learn it at shearing schools, if you’re interested), but rest assured, using this method isn’t necessary to shear sheep successfully at home. For most people, I recommend exactly what I do when faced with especially challenging or outsized sheep: shearing on a milking stand.

Milking-stand shearing has many benefits. The sheep can stand in a normal, comfortable position, and they’re safely held and controlled. During shearing, sheep may jump and kick, so controlling them is important. A milking stand also reduces stress, because the shearer can take breaks without having to chase and catch sheep again, and the sheep don’t get chased. Even better for human spines, milking stands come in raised styles and can be mounted on a platform.

Audio Article

A simple milking stand sells for about $125, and elevated ones with a ramp cost about $300. You can also make one yourself from simple materials. The key factors to consider and test are that the animal is firmly held but not squished, and that the height of the animal on the stand is correct relative to your height and desired position. If the stand is too low, you’ll end up bending over too much; if it’s too high, your arm will get tired holding the heavy, vibrating handpiece. Halter-breaking your sheep will allow you to walk them onto a stand.

Portable electric shearing handpiece. This is a larger version of the trimming tool used for human hair, but without a guard. Portable shearing handpieces are available from a variety of brands, and cost around $300 to $400. They aren’t cheap, but they’re more attainable than the $1,450 minimum cost of a professional setup.

This is one of the rare instances in life when I advise not buying used, unless the handpiece is from a shearer who’s leveling up equipment, or from someone who only used it once or not at all. If you do purchase a used one, have a professional inspect it for any necessary retooling before you use it.

When purchasing a handpiece, consider getting a model with the motor on the outside, because they don’t run as hot as models with the motor on the inside.

Get intimately familiar with your tools. Read the handpiece manual, and watch the manufacturer’s product videos. With good care and proper storage, a handpiece will last for ages. This is all I used for my first two years of shearing, and I still use it on small jobs.

In addition, get a pair of sharp hand scissors to trim the detail bits around ears, eyes, jaws, “armpits,” and hamstrings.

Manual hand shears. These can be used in addition to an electric handpiece, or as an alternative. Hand shears cost around $30, and can be used to shear a whole sheep. Wear a leather glove over your nonshearing hand for protection.

Thirteen-tooth comb and four-point cutter. The comb is attached to the handpiece. Its rounded bevels push skin down and away, while its teeth separate the wool before the cutter moves back and forth, cutting the fleece. Secure the comb tightly. You don’t want this piece of sharp, fast-moving metal flying off at you.

Comb selection and preferences should depend on sheep breed and the conditions in which they’re sheared, but most of the time, a 13-tooth comb without splayed edges shears most breeds safely and well. The number 13 refers to the number of teeth across the width of the comb. There are also 20-tooth combs, used for slick shearing on show sheep that have already been sheared, and combs with nine or 10 teeth. A nine- or 10-tooth comb automatically increases the risk of cutting your sheep, no matter how careful you are, because there’s too much space between the teeth…–…enough to cut off a teat or the tip of a finger. A 20-tooth comb may seem safest, but it won’t get much wool off. You may end up pushing the handpiece to make up for the comb’s shortcomings, and cut the sheep as a result. I’ve never needed a 20-tooth comb or a nine- or 10-tooth comb; a 13-tooth comb has served all my needs.

The cutter is held down against the comb by tensioned “chicken feet,” and the motor powers it back and forth to cut the wool separated by the comb teeth.

Cutter position matters a great deal and is tricky to get right. The outer points of the cutter should land fully on the outer comb teeth. They shouldn’t hang out in between the comb teeth, or travel beyond the outside teeth of the comb. In addition, the cutter shouldn’t sit too far forward. The comb teeth need enough length to separate the wool. The cutter should sit one pencil lead’s width back from the end of the bevel.

The tension knob on the handpiece presses the cutter down against the comb. You don’t want it too tight, and you definitely don’t want it too loose, or the cutter will fly off. Turn the knob and, before it’s fully tight, hold the knob in one hand and twist it until it stops under its own weight. Adjust again after you turn on the handpiece. A chattering sound is a sign the comb is too loose. You’ll want the tension tight enough without being too tight, as the metal cutter needs to slide against the metal comb.

Other materials. In addition to the items listed previously, you’ll also need:

  • Machine care and support: motor oil and an oil can, handpiece grease, an extension cord, a scraper brush to clean your comb and cutter between sheep, Kool Lube, and canned air to clean dirt from your handpiece.
  • Basic veterinary first aid: anti-fly spray, blood-clotting powder, curved vet needles, and unwaxed dental floss.
  • Basic human first aid: soap, water, antibiotic ointment, gauze, and tape.

1 Week Before Shearing: Get Familiar with Sheep Anatomy

You’ll need to know what’s what, whether ewe (female), ram (male), or wether (castrated male), to avoid harming delicate areas. Determining this information may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people are uncertain or wrong about a sheep’s anatomy. Intersex sheep and imperfectly castrated wethers are more common than you might expect.

Reproductive sheep anatomy is located on the belly and between the legs. It can be hidden by long tails, and may be hard to see if the animal isn’t flipped over. If your milking stand is raised and you can crouch or sit on a stool, do so and figure out what you’re dealing with.

Ewes have teats on their lower bellies, just above the crotch area between their rear legs. They may have two or four teats (rarely six) of varying sizes, clustered together or farther apart. Pay careful attention, because some teats can be tiny. If a ewe has lambed, her teats and udder should be larger and more visible. This is a good time to check for mastitis…–…look for hard udders, heat due to infection, pus, or one teat that’s considerably larger than the others. Ewes have belly veins that carry blood to their reproductive areas; take care that you don’t cut them. The vulva is beneath the tail.

Rams and wethers have a pizzle (penis) at midbelly. It resembles a large belly button and may be hidden by wool. Once you locate the pizzle, it can be helpful to draw a circle around it with a grease pen or anti-fly spray. Use the handpiece to shear the surrounding area, and then trim the pizzle area with hand scissors.

Rams also have testicles hanging between their rear legs. These may or may not have wool on them. Because the sheep will be standing and the testicles will be hanging, you won’t have a good way to pull them taut. Trim around the testicles with hand scissors, if needed. Point scissors away from where you’re cutting, moving over and out.

Neck wrinkles can hang, and they may be obscured by wool and look and feel like wool. The same goes for cysts and blobs of fat. Shear down the sides of the hanging neck wrinkle, versus right over the top of it.

Be careful around legs and hamstrings as well. Nobody wants to cut a hamstring and make a sheep lame. Hamstrings run down the backs of sheep legs, just like they do on humans. Shear down the sides of the legs, instead of right down the back. Leave extra wool on the legs when shearing them.

Day-Before Prep

Before shearing, you’ll want the sheep dry, penned, and empty of food and water. Gather the sheep and keep them under cover overnight to ensure they’re dry. Pen them tightly, shoulder to shoulder. Sheep are flock animals and don’t mind this arrangement, and it prevents them from running, so you can reach in and get one more easily. Packing them together also keeps sheep warmer. Wool has lanolin, which is an oil. When sheep are warm, the lanolin liquefies and helps the handpiece glide along smoothly.

Keep the sheep off feed and water overnight, for a full 12 hours. This is necessary in case you need to flip a sheep over. The size of a full rumen is about 6 gallons. If a sheep is flipped over with a full rumen, it will push against their diaphragm, making it hard for the sheep to breath, which can cause a heart attack. The sheep will also be more comfortable on the stand if they haven’t eaten. Plus, they won’t be energized and prone to kicking, and they’ll be less likely to defecate throughout the process, soiling the fleece and you.

Shearing Day

Remove all of your jewelry, including wedding bands. Before you start each sheep, look for metal ear tags, collars, and anything that might be stuck in their fleece. This step is critical, because if you hit metal with your handpiece, it will turn into shrapnel. Thorny plants, such as devil’s claws, can also be dangerous.

Prepare to oil the comb and cutter regularly. Metal-on-metal action makes friction, which creates heat. With the handpiece off, feel for hot metal. Sheep flinch when they feel hot metal on their skin, so watch for that reaction, and if you see it, stop shearing immediately. Spray Kool Lube on the comb and cutter as needed to cool them down…–…it works instantly. Also, take periodic breaks to let the motor cool down.

Mind your position. Don’t leave anything lying around to trip on, and be aware of your surroundings. Don’t bend over to examine a leg, and then get kicked in the face, for example.

Practice without the handpiece. Read through the following shearing moves, and then go over the sheep’s body with your bare hands. Take your body through the moves you’ll do when using the handpiece, and get a good feel for them before you begin shearing.

Repeat the handpiece position mantra as often as you can: “45-degree angle. Comb teeth down. Ride the bevel.” This technique keeps the sheep safe and doesn’t leave too much wool.

Shearing Steps

1. Shear a strip down the center of the back of the sheep, from front to back. This will create a dividing line at the top, between both sides of the sheep. Then, shear each side of the sheep in horizontal stripes.

a. This is your best-quality fleece. Set it aside in its own pile or bag. The rest of the fleece will be lower quality, and may be dirtier and full of feed.

b. Never pull the wool up or toward you; this can pull the skin up into the comb, resulting in a cut. You can pull the skin up to flatten it if it’s wrinkly, and shear over the flat area, but never pull on the wool.

2. After the top and sides are done, shear the back end of the sheep. This includes the tail, the top of the legs, and the crotch area.

a. If the tail isn’t docked, it’ll be long with a bony center. Hold it by the tip, out and away from the sheep. Shear carefully down the length of the tail in a slight spiral motion, with just a few teeth (the edge) of the comb.

b. Don’t cut the tail. You can leave some wool on the tail, and you don’t need to shear right up against it. This is terrible-quality wool, so you can shear it off a little at a time. What matters is that you remove the dirty wool.

c. The tail widens toward the top and is pink underneath. Don’t shear this area; stay on top of the tail.

3. Shear down the butt, which will likely have excrement on it. Look for any pink anatomy and avoid it. Start at the outer back hip, shearing down. Carefully work inward.

a. If the butt is dirty, either from mud or excrement or both, take time to find clean purchase to get the comb bevels down on the skin. You’ll want to get underneath the mess and get rid of it.

4. Shear down the sides of the hocks, britches, and legs.

a. Don’t hamstring the sheep. The hamstring and tendons run down the backs of the legs, so shear down the sides. Once the rest of the sheep has been sheared, use hand scissors to do the detail work on the backs of the legs.

5. Now, it’s time to shear the front of the sheep. Begin with the topknot…–…on top of the sheep’s head…–…in 2 to 4 strokes, getting the back of the sheep’s head and a bit of the high back neck. If you feel comfortable doing so, pull each ear forward a little and shear the wool at the base of the ear with a gentle scooping motion.

6. Shear a line from the top of the head down the back of the neck.

7. Next, shear down the sides of the neck vertically. Visualize shearing two hanging sides of a flap.

a. Wool will accumulate a bit on the front of the sheep’s neck, at the tip of the wrinkle. You can either leave it or carefully trim it with scissors.

8. Do all detail work at the end with a pair of hand scissors. Always point scissors away from a sheep’s face and eyes. You can protect a sheep’s eye by folding an ear over it, and then trim around it.

9. Have food and water available for the sheep and yourself immediately after shearing. You’ve all earned it!

Stephany Wilkes is a writer, sheep shearer, and author of Raw Material: Working Wool in the West. You can find her at Stephany Wilkes.

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