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.