April 17th, 2015 by Ed Bruske
Before we even bought our farm in Upstate New York I gave quite a bit of thought to the kind of sheep we’d want to help us mow the property. I settled on a type originally from Australia–the Dorper–that sheds hair rather than growing wool that needs to be shorn. I figured in our dotage we wouldn’t want to be bothered learning how to wrangle sheep to shear them. Eventually my wife would drive hundreds of miles across the state to purchase a small group of purebred Dorper ewes and a ram to start our future block. Perhaps she needn’t have bothered.
Our first sheep purchase consisted of six Friesian wool sheep that had been culled from a nearby cheese operation because they weren’t producing lambs. Through a neighbor, we met Joe, who inseminates cows by day and shears sheep in his off hours. Joe’s price for shearing–$10 per sheep–seems so reasonable, I wonder now why we spent so much time agonizing over this aspect of sheep maintenance.
Spring is the time for shearing. As ewes prepare to give birth, you want all that wool out of the way. But you don’t want to shear too early, as the sheep lose protection from the elements once the wool is removed. Not only are they more exposed to cold, but the lanolin they build up in their wool coats acts as waterproofing. It takes a few days before they build up protection again.
According to Joe, our Friesians are more resistant to being shorn than other breeds. They don’t sit still for it. “I guess that’s just my luck,” Joe says, as he wrangles another ewe into position and starts zip, zip, zipping with his electric clippers, starting from the sheep’s head and working toward the tail. The wool peels away in thick swaths. After Joe turns the sheep and shears the other side, holding the ewe’s head between his legs, the wool coat lies on the ground in one big piece, ready to be cleaned and spun into–what? A new sweater, maybe?
I look forward to having Joe on the farm shearing because we have a chance to chat and Joe’s a wealth of information. He used to own a mixed flock of some 50 sheep himself. In addition, he knows a ton about cows.
For instance, Joe confirms that many of our area farmers had to adjust to an extremely cold and lengthy winter by feeding their stock extra grain. He also confirms that identifying stress in sheep is hard when they over-winter with all that wool.
That helpful knowledge comes a bit late for us and the yearling ewe who died in our care recently after an especially stressful pregnancy. But this is how we learn to be livestock farmers: one conversation at a time.