Shearing sheep is a major job on the homestead, and it has to be done every year on most breeds. If you’re not interested in wool production and don’t want to have to shear, look into the hair breeds. But read on for a how-to primer on the chore of shearing sheep.
You can shear your sheep manually with good old hand shears or with electric (or mechanically driven) clippers. Either way, shearing is a skill that takes practice to perfect and requires good endurance. Professional shearers make it look easy, and some can shear a sheep in less than two minutes, but they’ve had lots of practice.
County extension offices in your area may offer lessons on a yearly basis at a nominal fee, or you may elect to enlist the help of a professional. However, if you find yourself unable to leave the task in the hands of a professional, or simply want to learn, it can be done on your own.
Sheep should be gathered up to 12 hours before you plan to shear and put in a handling facility that minimizes stress on you and them. The pen that holds them should be clean and dry. If the sheep are wet, don’t shear them. With a larger flock, it pays to break them down into groups that have similar fleeces: for example, by breed, staple length, age, and so on.
Shearing sheep can be tough on your back. It’s a good idea to do some stretching exercises before you start. You may also want to wear a back-support belt, available at your local pharmacy. Some shearers use a sling that helps suspend their torso above the sheep.
The real trick in shearing isn’t learning the pattern of the shearing strokes, which lessens the time involved in removing the wool, but rather immobilizing sheep by the various holds that give them no leverage to struggle. A helpless sheep is a quiet sheep. Rendering sheep helpless cannot be done by force alone, for forcible holding makes them struggle more. Try to stay relaxed while you work.
Note both the holds on the sheep, often by use of the shearer’s foot or knee, and the pattern of shearing found in How to Shear a Sheep in 20 Steps.
Even though shearing cuts heal quickly, use an antibacterial spray to help prevent infections, which may spread to the lymph glands or result in fly-strike. Commercial shearers don’t normally do this, but if you’re there to help, you can pay special attention to these cuts.
Shearing is something you learn with practice; over time you’ll develop techniques that work well for you, but these suggestions should help you get started.
• Shear as early as the weather permits so shearing nicks will heal before fly season. Ewes can be sheared (gently) before lambing; this makes it easier to help the ewe if necessary and removes dirty wool tags that the lamb might suck on.
• Never shear when the wool is wet or damp. Damp wool is very hard to dry for sacking and storing. It is also combustible and can mildew.
• Pen the sheep in on the afternoon prior to shearing so they will not be full of feed when sheared. A covered holding pen with a slatted floor is ideal.
• Shear on a clean tarp, shaken out after each sheep, or on a wood floor that can be swept off. A 4-by-4-foot piece of plywood works well.
• Shear fleece in one piece, but don’t trim the wool from the legs or the hooves onto the fleece.
• Remove dung tags, and do not tie them in with the fleece.
• Avoid making second cuts — that is, going twice over the same place to tidy up on overlapping your strokes.
• Roll fleece properly, and tie with paper twine if you’re selling to a wool dealer or in a wool pool.
• Skirting the fleece (removing a strip about 3 inches wide from the edges of the shorn fleece) is proper, especially if you’re selling to spinners. A slatted skirting table makes this easy and enables any second cuts to drop off if the fleece is thrown onto the table with the sheared side down.
• Be sure you shear black sheep and white sheep separately, sweeping off the floor between each. Do not combine white fleece with dark fleece.
• For spinning wool, expect top dollar for quality (clean fleeces without manure tags, skirtings, or vegetation).
• For lower-quality fleeces, charge lower prices and explain the reason for the price to the customer. These fleeces may be quite adequate for quilt batting, rug yarn, or felting.
Learning to shear your own sheep can sometimes lead to a part-time seasonal income because shearers are scarce in many areas, and some sheep raisers have to wait until the heat of the summer before they can hire one.
For flocks of only four or six sheep, professional shearers may not want to spend the time to travel some distance for the small fee that could be charged. Another reason a commercial shearer would not want to do a small number of sheep is that facilities are seldom ideal — often there is no good method or arrangement for catching the sheep and no electricity for his shearing equipment.
When you shear with hand shears, which are so convenient for a small number of sheep, you don’t have to worry about electricity.
Shearing in your own vicinity obviously eliminates distant travel, and you can make an agreement ahead of time that the owner will have the sheep penned when you arrive. You can either charge for your service or trade shearing services for wool.
If you’re charging for your shearing skills, then the person for whom you work expects you to shear the fleece carefully, especially avoiding making second cuts.
When you shear as a sideline job, you can expand your service to include trimming the hooves and worming the sheep, but for this you should negotiate a separate fee.
The wool that you get can be combined with your clip to provide income, or if you are a spinner, the best could be selected out for your spinning projects.
This material was excerpted with permission from Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep, by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius, published by Storey Publishing.
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