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Sheep shearing school

Gee, what did you do this weekend? Oh, nothing, just spent 2 days with a handful of people learning to get wool off about 150 sheep weighing close to 200 lbs. Not something I ever really thought I'd say. And, yes, it's both as awesome and difficult as it sounds.

The program I attended (got the certificate to prove it!) was sponsored by Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative, UW-Madison Agriculture Extension Service, and UW-Madison Arlington Sheep Research Unit. Ronald Cole, who is a Wool Education Consultant from the American Sheep Industry Association, Inc. was also there to talk about quality. But most of the weekend was focused on shearing. (Word yesterday was that some of us interested may get invited back for a 3 day seminar on wool quality next year.) The University of Wisconsin has a sheep unit on a sprawling farm complex just north of Madison.

I had expected the beginning of the program on Saturday to mirror other sheep and goat seminars I've attended and have classroom instruction for awhile. But, other than Mr. Cole's historical photos of shearing in the western US, we mostly headed to the barn for a few demonstration sheep before getting our hands on some of our own. We were shearing Polypay and then some Hampshire. Normally, the ewes for this school would be more pregnant since they'd be due in January. This year, however, the unit pushed lambing to February so our ewes weren't quite so far along.

And to answer one early question I got via Facebook, the reason they're sheared at this time is that it makes lambing easier and helps the newborn lambs find milk. There are still range flocks on the west coast that shear in spring--as I think most people expect based on their instincts about sheep--but in Wisconsin shearing and lambing in late winter is quite common. The animals would usually be in a barn or in pens with access to cover. Sheep are pretty hardy, too.

My partner for the weekend has a couple of small sheep for her vineyard, but she has a history of working with livestock so her handling skills and technique picked up pretty quickly. She's definitely better than me. Technique and tools are everything here. Unfortunately, not everyone in the class could get the belt-driven, high-powered hand pieces so most of us were left with a selection of what looks like a steroids version of a beard-trimmer. Cord, comb, blade. Only these you keep covered in motor oil. They vary from absolute junk with no power to "enough power but it overheats." I had to put on a glove on my shearing hand yesterday because it was burning my hand.

Anyway, the placement of your feet and the pattern you use is what allows the wool to come off in one fleece. The belly wool is junked up with dirt and manure and hay so you take that off first and throw it on essentially a pile of scrap wool. But the rest has a specific way it should come off. Hind leg, cut off their mop-like wool on the forehead, up the neck, clean out the head and shoulder, then long blows the length of the body until you can put the head between your legs and get the wool off the shoulders and down the back to the point where it falls off. It looks gorgeous if you do it right. Naked sheep and a beautiful fleece to be washed for a sweater. If you do it wrong...well, it looks like the sheep has patches and you spend half your time trying to hack through crusty hay instead of next to the skin where the blade slices through the wool like butter. Did I mention that in addition to all that, you'll be holding down a squirming (if you're lucky that's all) sheep? Our class did pretty well...none of the sheep or humans required sewing up.

The weekend was definitely food for thought...a skilled shearer who can work quickly and well is amazing to watch and worth every penny they ask for. Would I shear my own future flock? Probably not...I'm going to have hot coffee, cookies, and a big wad of cash for whoever comes to do mine. On the other hand, do I have the confidence now that if the shearer is stuck in a brutal snowstorm that I could get out my own hand piece and slowly get through my sheep? Definitely.

Some interesting things about genetics and behavior also come to light. The bigger sheep seem like more work and more wool, but they also are quiet and laying down for you to quietly take their wool. The younger, smaller sheep were a bit more feisty. You look at them and think, "I'm gonna have this one done quick." Then it takes 3 people to finish her. The more docile Polypay have harder wool to shear. The jumpier, louder Hampshire have wool that cuts so smooth...if you can hold them still. And sheep with less belly wool and leg wool eliminate a quarter of the work for you.

One of the organizers, Dr. Thomas, is retiring at the end of the year and one of the rumors--sadly--is that budget cuts may mean the UW sheep program could be doomed. I hope this isn't the case. It's such a valuable resource not just for the Wisconsin sheep community but, as I'm evidence of, the surrounding region. It's so rare to find other "sheep people" let alone knowledgeable sheep people who can network and share.

Something for you non-agriculture readers to keep in addition to all the other environmental and beneficial qualities of sheep, Mr. Cole from ASI offered another interesting insight. During Afghanistan and Iraq, the military was having trouble with burns from bottom layer gear melting onto personnel in combat. Guess what makes an amazing layer of sustainable, burn-proof uniform for our soldiers? Yup. Wool. Please buy lamb. Please buy wool...USA made if you can find it. If you want someone to grow it, we have to pay them for it and develop the industry.