Category Archives: Family
It is hard to describe shearing season. It is essential, and ridden with uncertainty. The sheep must be shorn once a year in order to remain healthy and productive. The wool is a critical part of our income. And it is overwhelmingly important that the wool be shorn before lambing commences—a point that was brought home in 2015 when the scheduled shearers did not show up, and the problems of the season were exacerbated by weather and visa issues for the crews. We had to lamb in the wool, and organize a complicated shearing/docking operation in June.
Shearing of the range sheep herds is accomplished by contractors, who hire highly skilled crews (mostly foreigners, who need H2-A visas). It is a well-paid profession, but like most essential agriculture jobs, hardly filled by Americans. The contractors spend most of the non-shearing season vetting, hiring and completing paperwork so that they will have enough skilled, hard-working shearers to fill their crew.
The contractors seek to work for producers with a large number of sheep. This means that they don’t have to move as often, and are guaranteed a good period of work. Producers develop reputations for their facilities and respect for the crew, as well as proximity to amenities such as grocery stores and fuel.
Likewise, shearing contractors are known for their speed, care of the sheep and the wool, and above all, reliability. Producers value the good crews and strive to hire them. It is a dance every year, with the crews shifting as the situations change. Loyalty goes a long way for both partners.
This year our good California crew returned, and sheared our sheep in good order. We had luck that they were able to show up only a couple of days after our original target date. Sometimes the delay is many days, or weeks. Producers have to “stage” the sheep, since the shearing areas are usually at a fixed site, with usually “just enough” feed to support the sheep as they cycle through the shed.
In the old days, producers had large fixed sheds, which were designed to facilitate the movement of sheep and efficiency for the shearer. Most of these old Australian-style sheds are gone now, and the traveling crews have portable sheds which are basically small buildings on a trailer base. These are ingeniously designed to allow the sheep to enter a long chute from which the shearers (usually six or eight to a shed) can pull them to the shearing floor. After she is shorn, the ewe goes out a trap door to the left, while the wool slides out to the right. The wool handlers are waiting to sort and bale the wool just outside. Some crews have “sorting tables” to make it easier to skirt and bale the wool.
About 40 fleeces go into each bale, tamped down by a large ramrod into a rectangular wool bag. Bellies and tags (dirty short pieces) are baled separately, as are different types and grades of wool. The wool handlers, often women, are also skilled and must work fast to keep up with the shearers, who outnumber them.
The weather is a huge factor in all this. Wet sheep cannot be shorn. The wool quality is ruined if it is baled wet. Shearers won’t shear wet sheep because it can lead to “wool pneumonia”. Cold spring storms are a threat to recently shorn sheep. In a week or so, enough wool grows back to allow the sheep to have some insulation, but freshly shorn sheep are very vulnerable to cold, wet weather. A late April storm in 1984 killed a quarter million ewes in Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas. Some of them were ours.
All that said, we are grateful that we got through the week it takes us to shear with relatively good conditions, a good crew and healthy sheep. We have to trail to the lambing grounds now with the main bunches. The two-year-olds are already under way lambing at our lambing sheds, so all hands are busy.
We are almost done lambing out the purebred ewes (one left to go). We have a few ewes who need to go to the auction because they were dry (not pregnant) or otherwise not likely to produce a lamb next year. Here are Meghan, David and Luis catching the ewes who will go on the Centennial Livestock Express. Here also are lots of successful moms and cute baby lambs who will grow up to be our replacement ewes, bucks and 4-H lambs. It is starting to green up, so the ewes are eager to get out of the corral to chase after those early sprouts.
Each winter, we send many of our cows to Laramie to be wintered by our friends, the Spieglebergs. They raise a lot of hay at their high altitude ranch and give great care to our cows. Now it is time for them to come home, so they are arriving, one truckload at a time.
In the meantime, we are seeing new calves on the ground. We’ve had some scary weather with high winds and low temperatures, but for the present, we have bare meadows, warmish days and nights, and a lot of fun overseeing the new babies.
If it’s March, it must be time to pregnancy test. We breed the best of our Rambouillet ewes to Rambouillet rams, thereby ensuring a new crop of replacement ewe lambs, as well as their brothers/cousins. Since purebred whiteface lambs are more vulnerable at birth, especially the twins, we pregnancy check the moms so that the ewes carrying twins can lamb in the sheds. The rest of the Rambouillet ewes are bred to our Hampshire rams. Their lambs have hybrid vigor and usually do fine with drop lambing on the range. Our friend Geri Parsons from Optimal Livestock Services comes up each March at mid-pregnancy to check the ewes and call out “single”, “twins”, “open” and even “triplets”. Meghan and her crew appropriately marked the ewes with a paint dab on their heads to signify their status for later sorting. Geri usually braves chill winds and long drives for several days to accomplish this task. Here’s some photos of this year’s pregnancy checking.