Wow, what a day. I was up at 4:45 because I was so excited to see all that fleece and it didn’t disappoint.
We sheared 22 sheep
5 Pygora Goats
Played with 2 lambs and a kid goat, big white dogs and 2 puppies.
It was a big day 🙂
My day officially started about 6 am, after a little Facebooking, when I realized I was out of coffee. How can this happen? When you have 3 young adult kids living in your house who drink coffee at all hours of the night and day, this sometimes occurs. So I ran through the shower and then to the store to get coffee and a few other essentials for our day. I was back home by 7 to start prepping my supplies.
Growing wool is easy. Growing wool that makes hand spinners eyes light up takes coats. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to a spinner and their smile gets big when they hear that I raise sheep. When I say I coat them they begin to sparkle and glow. No joke, their whole appearance changes. For those that don’t understand let me explain.
Wool is like hair in that the shafts have scales which help it lock together when spun into yarn. Those scales also act like super grippers and grab onto bits of hay, grass, grain, etc., known in the fiber world as vegetable matter (VM). Once this vm gets in the fleece it can be very hard to remove. It is the vm that makes most wool products a little itchy. In fiber processing mills they use a chemical solution to dissolve the vm but this also changes the texture of the wool making it more coarse and often dulls the natural sheen, or luster, of the wool. This is why many hand spinners and other fiber artists prefer to hand process their wool. It’s more time consuming but often yields a softer end product. Plus it’s super satisfying to start with a ball of fluff and end up with a hand spun, hand dyed, hand knit creation.
Imagine if you will, that all that vm stuff can be easily avoided, removing tedious hours of carding and combing to prepare the wool for washing and spinning. That is where coats come in. The coat is a lightweight sheet that covers the best parts of the wool while it’s growing on the sheep keeping it clean and safe from vm invasions.
So why don’t all sheep wear coats? Well, because they cost money, they require time to change them every few months as the wool grows, and some wool will felt on the animals under a coat which makes the wool useless. But I digress, we were talking about yesterday in the barn.
I had 2 hours of prep in before the sunrise, typical for me, I’m a morning person. It was a chilly -2* outside but the sky was clear and the sun was up so it was time to get to work.
Our bottle baby (Smiley aka Francis (spoken with a British accent) aka Frank) is always the first order of business. He is sweet and growing like a little weed.
Little Maximus is growing up too. He and his mommy are still in the barn enjoying the vacation from the cold. Their vacation is about to come to an end however because we discovered the remaining 6 ewes are all preggers and need to come inside to lamb 🙂
There are a lot of videos and memes about how violent and deadly wool is. If you’ve seen the Ugg video going around recently I can tell you that’s not happening on my farm. I love my sheep and I would be heartbroken and out of business if any harm were to come to them. I was lucky enough to have a extra set of hands to run the camera yesterday so we got over 600 pictures and I want to share some to help explain the process.
Sheep are easiest to work with when they are calm, stress can make the wool break which makes it virtually worthless so we are careful to keep them quiet and handle them gently. Each sheep is brought in, coat removed, weighed, and then handed over to the shearer. I always watch a shearer work someone else’s sheep before I let them work on mine. I like a shearer who is calm and quiet with the sheep. Nicks and cuts will happen, it’s no different than human shaving, but imagine shaving while while standing in the back of a pickup going down the road. No matter how careful you are the truck hits a bump and you jerk a little… The good news is that sheep skin is loose so the cuts don’t usually affect anything vital and there is very little blood loss.
The shearer starts by sitting them up on their butts. When the sheep are in this position they cannot get leverage to fight so they go limp and relax against his legs.
He uses his toes to lift against them to help position them.
He starts on the belly. This wool is usually garbage. When a sheep lays down they lay upright with their feet tucked under them. This presses the belly wool into the ground and whatever is on the ground so this wool is typically matted, with mud and straw mixed in. Once the belly wool is removed he starts on the back leg and hip, peeling the fleece away from her sides working his way to her front end and neck area. He uses care to stretch her skin so there are no wrinkles as he shears. He also takes the time to shave her face and head as the wool can block her eyesight.
Notice how the wool drapes and clings together? The lanolin is a little like glue and makes the wool sticky enough that the locks bind together. Once he has her head clear then he lays her neck over his leg so it stretches the skin taught and he can run the clippers from her shoulder to her ear without catching any wrinkles. He does this on the side of her neck because some breeds have a wattle or flap of skin running down the front of their throat. He folds her ear under his hand to keep it safe from the sharp blades and covers her eye at the same time. She is literally limp and relaxed onto him while he does this.
Sheep are very flexible!
After her neck he works down across her shoulder to meet up with where he shaved her side. He is careful to let the wool all stay together like a blanket. He gently peels the wool off leaving a lovely white coat.
He then lays her on her side so he can make long passes from her rump to the back of her head.
Well hydrated sheep are naturally plump so less wrinkly but fine wool sheep like Merino and Cormo are bred for wrinkles. The extra skin means more area to grow wool on.
He tucks her head to stretch her back to prevent any wrinkles as he goes.
Look how pristine and white that is. Another good reason to avoid cuts. Any damage to the sheep would also damage the wool.
I love how the wool pile looks bigger than the sheep. This is why each sheep needs at least 4 different size coats per year. That wool takes up a lot of space.
The last part of the process has her back up on her butt so he can shave down the other shoulder to the hip.
The choreography is specifically designed to roll the sheep in such a way that you can reach all angles without breaking up the wool blanket. If the sheep was shorn correctly you should be able to lay out the clipped wool and identify the form of the sheep.
As he works down the last side it is necessary to move the bigger part of the blanket taking care not to pull the blanket apart or strain the wool that is still attached causing a wrinkle that might get cut off. The goal is to end up with clean white sheep and clean white fleece. The yellow spots are heavy lanolin deposits. In warm weather I rinse them out with a hose but it’s too cold for that now.
While Missy was getting her hair cut Big Bertha took her turn on the scale. She looks like our biggest lamb from last year but looks can be deceiving. Her twin brother actually weighs 2 lbs more but her fleece is almost 2 lbs heavier than his. 🙂
The girls weighed each fleece after it was wrapped and tagged each bundle with the animals name. This way I can track who is doing well and if there are any issues with the fleece, that are nutrition related, I can make sure that the animals get a boost of what’s needed.
In bigger commercial operations they typically pile all the fleece into an industrial sized bag and pack it tight then send it off for processing at a mill. I’m lucky that my operation is small enough for me to be able to evaluate each animal and fleece individually.
Break time involves cuddling baby goat. Maximus is so social and loves all the attention.
Not all my sheep are white. I have some spotted lambs that we refer to as “cow sheep” because of their black and white markings. They are a little deceptive though.
They appear mostly white on the outside but when you open up their wool…
Our “cow sheep” are a cross of Dorper (a meat sheep) and Cormo (a fine wool sheep). Since this is the first batch of lambs from this pairing, and this is those lambs first shearing, I have no idea if this crossing will always yield this result.
Watching these sheep get shorn was awesome. Everyone was amazed by the spots. When lambs are born they have a little bit of wool on them so we have always seen these sheep as mostly white with some black spots.
Watching all this speckled fleece come off all I could do was stand there gaping at it. It’s pretty fine and super crimpy. It’s gorgeous and I’m in love.
She looks so different than when she came in. I’ll be watching her through the coming year to see how her coloration grows out. We have 3 yearlings with these spots but our little ewe will be staying here and she has the most spots.
For me, the best part of watching the shearing is seeing how calm and relaxed the sheep are when they are done. The majority of them just lay there as if they don’t have a care in the world.
Of course touching all the wool is a pretty exciting too.
And then it was lunch time.
Followed by a milk coma.
Last year’s bottle babies gave us some great wool and then got a ear rub which they thoroughly enjoyed.
Shearing is also a great time to evaluate body conditions and pregnancies. The big chocolate girls are both very big with lambs. I’m hoping they each carry twins again this year and if one of them happened to have chocolate babies that would be wonderful. These girls have heavier wool on their chest and bellies than our Cormo sheep do and their dark coloring really shows just how much hay is clinging there.
The only way to tell these two apart is the ears. Latte has a little more white frosting on the edges of her ears. Otherwise they are pretty near identical.
They look dark brown until you shear them and then you see they are actually silver-backed gorillas 🙂 These girls are ranked #2 and #3 in size, outweighing even our ram. Of course I haven’t weighed them when they weren’t pregnant but right now they are officially in need of “Wide Load” flagging.
The biggest sheep in our flock is also the best behaved. Woolley Nelson is our one and only wether (fixed male) and he is as sweet as they come. His only job is to grow fleece. He doesn’t have the stress on his body that breeding animals do so all his energy goes to his fleece. And he grows a magnificent fleece.
You can clearly see what a difference a coat makes. This guy is creamy white from the roots to the tips. He is a Columbia/Hampshire Down cross and his fleece weighs 10 lbs. His fleece is only 1 pound heavier than Niko’s but it has a lot less lanolin so it won’t loose as much weight after washing. Loosely translated that means he has more fleece.
Niko is our purebred Cormo ram. He produces a super fine bright white fleece.
As rams go, he’s a pretty nice guy. We have to show him the appropriate respect just to be safe. He’s a big boy and they are called rams for a reason 😉
Notice that Niko has paint on his chest from breeding season. We mix raddle powder (paint) with vegetable oil and slather up his chest so we can track which ewes have been bred. This allows us to plan for lambing so we don’t get surprised by lambs born outside in freezing weather. No one wants to come home to lambcicles 😦
Ewes heat cycle is 17 days so we switch paint colors to see which ewes were bred on the first cycle vs which were bred on the second. The raddle doesn’t wash out but it also doesn’t freeze solid, meaning it will still mark even if it’s -20. This is a good thing because it did get that cold during breeding season. I record the color on each ewe’s coat at every feeding so I know what order to run them through the lambing jugs.
Of course even the best laid plans are not foolproof.
Felony Melanie was born a few days early, outside, with temps below freezing, while we were at work. Luckily her momma got her all cleaned up and dried off so she didn’t freeze.
Not everyone is that lucky.
Maximus was born that same day, but either his momma had him on the ice or he wandered off the warm bedding and onto the ice. He was hypothermic when we found him and had to be warmed and assisted for the first several days. He seems to be handling all the attention ok though. Little guy thinks he’s the star of the show, which he kind of is, so that works.
Was born outside in the cold too. His mommy wasn’t feeling well so he was cold and hungry. A warm bottle perked him right up. His mom still isn’t producing milk but she is taking care of him, cuddling him at night to keep him warm and making sure the other sheep are being nice to him. She doesn’t mind that we are feeding him which is good because I think bottle babies do better when they identify as sheep instead of people.
After shearing I still had barn chores to do, new bedding to put out so the bald sheep didn’t freeze, and a bunch of young chicks to move out to the barn. Never a dull moment on the farm. At the end of the day I decided to do a little math.
We have 2,779 lbs of sheep on the hoof
We harvested 224 lbs of wool
I walked 13,500 steps and 5.6 miles
I worked for 18 hours with a couple short breaks.
No wonder I’m tired. What a great workout I get to have.