When I say I raise sheep people tend to ask 2 questions. #1 For what purpose? #2 What kind of sheep. Well, to #1 I say my main focus is the best wool I can raise, but they all taste good. And #2 is the soft cute ones.
Since my main focus is the wool, shearing day is like a national holiday around our farm. Friends come to help, other just want to watch and learn, by the end of the day we are all happy, tired, and excited for next year.
What’s all the excitement about? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but THIS:
This is Sonny, our registered Merino ram. He has super fine fleece with lots of crimp. The crimp (little zig-zags) give the yarn memory or elasticity. That is what makes your sweater hold it’s shape and keeps it from stretching and sagging.
Sheep secrete lanolin which is a waxy like substance used in lotions and soaps. On sheep it is a carrier that pushes the dirt to the outside end of the fleece. So while our sheep look silty gray on the outside when you open the fleece they are bright shiny white on the inside.
Sonny has horns, an aspect of his breed, so we use scissors to trim where the shears cannot go. If the wool gets too bushy around his eyes he becomes what is called wool-blind, and he will have difficulty seeing.
The lanolin in the wool, and the texture in the individual fibers, help hold the cut wool together in a “Blanket” so a judge could lay it all out and tell which part was the head, the tail, and the legs. This is an important part of fleece judging, they want to evaluate how consistent the length and crimp is from one part of the body to another. The shearer and handlers take care to keep it together as they do the various tasks that a fleece needs to endure getting from sheep to show.
You can see all the wrinkles Sonny has, Merinos were bred over the centuries to have extra skin, each wrinkle is more area to grow wool, and a real challenge for the shearer. It’s much harder to shear these wrinkly ones, easy to nick the loose skin, he tries to flex them in ways that will pull the skin tight, much like you tighten your skin while shaving, but nicks do happen. The lanolin also has healing properties and that nick on Sonny’s chin will be healed in just a couple days.
Duchess is ready for her turn, she has an itch she’s been waiting months to scratch. We use this handling opportunity to look them over, check body condition, pregnancy status, and to get lots of photos.
Duchess is a cross between a Hampshire Down and a Columbia. Her wool is not as fine as Sonny’s and the crimp is more open. This will still make a nice springy yarn that is soft enough to wear next to your skin.
We are pleased to note that Duchess is healthy with a nice body condition and that she is pregnant and due in the near future 🙂
Piper is a little ewe lamb born to Duchess and Chong last summer. She is not quite a year old but has a lovely staple length already.
Piper gave us a fleece that is finer than her mothers, with a tighter crimp and a nice staple length. She got some of those good fine fiber genes from her daddy, and she is an absolute love to handle.
Niko is our Purebred Cormo Ram, the sire of many of our ewes, and a fan favorite in the local fiber guild. He is being offered for sale this year.
Niko’s fleece is also very fine and super crimpy. It can be spun into a very fine, and very soft lace that feels amazing next to your skin.
Niko generally give about 11 lbs of fleece, although some is skirted off, the dirtiest bits are removed, around his bottom and down around his legs, to keep the less clean fleece from mucking up the pristine white fleece.
Chong is a ram that was bred here at Tower Ranch. He is out of a Rambouillet ewe and sired by Niko. Cormo and Rambouillet (pronounced ram-boo-lay) are both very fine wool and this boy does not disappoint. He is also our biggest sheep at 223 lbs of pure muscle. Good thing he’s pretty tame for a ram , he likes being shown, and he’s passing on these great genes to some of our babies. Chong gives a big heavy fleece, bright white, super fine wool with tight crimp, plus he adds “Hybrid vigor” which is the increase in such characteristics as size, growth rate, fertility, and yield of a hybrid organism over those of its parents.
Chong is also referred to as Mr. Handome because he is, in my opinion, a very good looking gentleman. It helps that he is the only one of my rams that I can handle. The other two are a little aggressive (it’s a ram thing) and I have to rely on the guys to help move them.
Speaking of guys, these are the guys that help make this all happen. If you want to know the secret to surviving shearing day? Invite strong young men to help you. Thanks Marc, Connor, and my son Thomas for helping get all these woolly wonders moved, weighed, and pedicured.
At Tower Ranch most sheep wear coats. This has NOTHING to do with keeping them warm and everything to do with keeping them clean. It’s very hard to get hay and grass and other “vegetable matter” (vm) out of wool, so if we keep it from getting in we have dodged that bullet.
You can see the difference between his head and shoulders, the color of the wool is the difference between clean and dirty. In this case, his head has silt from the wind coming off the glacier. The silt is a very fine grey sand that gets into and onto everything when the wind blows. The coat keeps out the hay and the dust and dirt so the “Blanket” or body of the fleece, is clean and clear of all external debris.
Cole spent the day skirting the fleeces. He spread them out, pulled off the dirtiest bits, evaluated the quality and condition of each, noted it for my records, and then carefully wrapped them in sheets for storage. These fleece will be shown at the Mat-Su Valley Fiber Festival in July and then again at the Alaska State Fair in August. Then they will be sold to local fiber artists and made into all kinds of wonderful things.
Not all our sheep are white. Perdita is our dalmation sheep 🙂 She is also the best fleece we have here on our farm. Surprisingly she is half dorper, a hair breed known for shedding their wool which is really not suitable for anything, sired by Chong who, I mentioned above, has exquisite fleece. Last year she was Grand Champion and Judges Choice at the fair, which was quite an honor for us. I’m told that this year her fleece is just as excellent. Quite an accomplishment as she is also pregnant and due any day. We crossed her with Sonny, and I can’t wait to see how that turns out.
CrazyPants is the typical red head, a little bit awesome mixed with a little bit-a crazy 🙂 You never know how she’s going to react but she has a reliably interesting fleece. It’s a pretty dusty rose color, hard to capture in pictures, but its naturally beautiful and fine. She gives us beautiful babies and is one of the best moms we have.
We are so thankful for our shearer AJ. He sheared 22 sheep for us, using different “holds” and techniques to help the sheep remain calm and reduces stress. We spend all year growing great fleece but if it’s not removed from the sheep carefully it could be ruined and become worthless.
Our dogs try to stay out of the way but can’t help hovering, making sure their sheep are safe. Always on duty, they watch everything but know it’s a working day for us and although their sheep will be handle a lot, and photographed even more, all these people milling about are welcome and need to be allowed to do what they are doing.
And just like that we are done. 5 hours, 22 sheep, 10 or 12 friends, and a whole lotta fun. Wow what a day. Thank you everyone who came out to help, Let’s do this again next year 😀