Daughter and mother,
my right-hand canine duo—
Cora and Sadie.
Shearing the sheep is a challenge every year. We are dependent, foremost, upon the arrival of the shearing crew. These skilled and essential crews are more difficult to find every year. For the crew bosses, it is harder each year to put together skilled shearers and to put together sheep to shear. We are dependent upon the weather, which is capricious. This year, now, our excellent shearing crew has started a few days late, due to weather. On Friday, we were able to get in a good days’ shearing. Yesterday it rained all day. Rain is usually good—much better than drought—but wet sheep can’t be shorn. Today, we started again, and managed to get through 50 head. A brief but fierce storm came through, and stopped us. So tomorrow, we try again. We have a lot of ewes who need shorn before lambing starts May 10th or so.
2018 shearing is complete. The crew showed up in a timely manner, the ewes moved through in an orderly manner, and we thanked our lucky stars because many years bring problems, from weather to a late crew to the late arrival of our sheepherders from Peru.
First the ewes trailed from their winter pasture on the Red Desert to Badwater, which is spring and fall country. The shearing crew showed up and set up their shed and baler. We brought the bunches through, staging them for the trail south to the lambing grounds. We got two days of rain, which was welcome, but finished in time to trail several days ahead of lambing.
We then moved on to Powder Flat, where the ewes who had lambed in March were still in the wool, and the bucks, still in their red “working clothes”, awaited. We had a glitch when my dog, Cora, hit the automatic locks on the pickup as I was hauling the shearing shed to Powder Flat. Unfortunately, the pickup was at the main gate (fondly know as The Portal), and my phone was inside. After several hours, which included a long walk, much unhitching and hitching and dragging heavy vehicles around with a tractor, we were able to haul the shed to the waiting shearers and get started. Pat brought the extra keys, liberating the truck and the dog.
After two half days, all were sheared and ready to head into the spring season and events.
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.
There was lots of llama drama
At the shearing shed tonight,
Mama Beulah and Maria
Put up a worthy fight.
“Can’t you see it’s cold out,
Can’t you see our frosty breath?
It’s not weather fit for shearing.
No fleece could bring our death!”
“We have barns to give you shelter,
We have cozy straw for bed,
There will be no frozen llamas,
You have no need for dread”
“But we can see those rams
Who have lost their wooly coats,
They no longer look majestic,
They look more like hairy goats.”
“Step right up here, ladies,
To the Ladder Ranch salon.
You’ll soon sport the latest style,
Your wavy locks will soon be gone.”
“No, we like our flowing locks.
We like it long and swirly,
We like it warm and thick.
Our best look is llama curly”
“Your new look will be most stylish.
Your new look will be most sleek.
You’ll have the latest, greatest ‘dos,
Your llama glamour all will seek.”
“Whoa, what is all this racket?
What is this clank and clatter?
We don’t want a crew cut hair cut!
Our opinion doesn’t matter?!”
“Never mind those four strong guys,
Just ignore that noisy shearer,
Lie right down here on the platform.
There’s no need for fear here.”
“Wait, I’m on my back now!
You’ve stretched me stem to stern!
Those blades are on my skin!
Are you sure that it won’t burn?”
“Don’t struggle so, my llama,
Soon this shearing will be done.
From your fleece you’ll soon be parted,
And your hide will soon see sun.”
“No—I won’t take this lying down,
It will make this llama sad.
Why, this humiliation
Just makes me spitting mad!”
“Now you can look just lovely,
With your new stylish trendy ‘do,
You can join your sheep friends,
With a cut that’s cute and new!”
“No, I don’t want this summer haircut,
Can’t you tell that it’s still cold!
I don’t like those noisy clippers
I don’t like this strongarm hold!”
“We can let her go now,
Her shearing is complete.
Oh, yuck! What is this vile goo
That’s spattered on my feet?!”
“That’s my mama llama spit,
You deserve that sticky blast.
Maybe next year you’ll remember
And this trim will be my last!”
Yup, it was lots of llama drama
At the Ladder Ranch tonight,
If you don’t mind a little spit
They’re quite the stylish sight!
The time has come to shear the early lambers. We raise our own bucks out of our purebred Hampshire and Rambouillet ewes. These girls lamb in late February and March, so we like to get their wool off before lambing is well underway. Of course, we have some babies on the ground already.
The shearing crew showed up right on time–well maybe a couple of days late due to weather, but that is actually on time. We had to haul the shed into the Powder Flat Headquarters with a tractor due to mud. We managed to get a half day in, and shear most of the whitefaces. We were ready to start bright and early the next morning, but…fog, in February. This meant that the ewes in the wool were, not exactly wet, since it was 17 degrees, but frosted. We knew that with some sun, and maybe a breeze, they would be dry enough, after lunch, to start shearing. But no. The fog didn’t burn off until afternoon, and the air was absolutely still. Finally Meghan said, “I’m calling it. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
Shearing the sheep is one of the most essential tasks that is accomplished all year. It is also one of the most uncertain. It is critical for the health of the sheep, the success of the lambing, and the impact on our bottom line, as we sell the wool to be made into natural, non-oil-based fabric. Shearing, next to the weather, is the part of the business that we have the least control over. The shearing contractors are dependent on the Department of Labor processing their visa applications in a timely manner, since most shearers are from New Zealand and other foreign lands. Shearing is a highly paid skill, but not enough American workers are available to fulfill the need. Each year, the arrival of the shearing crew is more uncertain. We were glad this year when our crew arrived after only a few predictable and unpredictable delays. The early lambers have been sheared and are lambing away. Now, after a few more days’ weather delay (rain, snow, high winds), we plan to shear the “main line”.
This spring, for the first time in our experience, we have lambed our ewes in the wool.
This situation occurred, in large part, because shearing contractors cannot get enough foreign shearers through the broken H2A visa system, and not enough American shearers are available, even though shearing sheep pays very well. In our particular situation, our usual shearing contractor was not honest with us as to when his crew could realistically arrive, which left us with no time to find another shearer—a nearly impossible situation anyway.
By mid-May, we realized that we could not get the ewes sheared before lambing. I tried explaining the difficult situation to the ewes, but they refused to wait another week before giving birth. As a mother, I can relate to this. And also it was raining every day.
We did manage to find an American crew out of California, but they were able to shear only a day and a half before the rains and the lambs really set in. This left us with 6000 or so sheep left to shear, including the yearlings. The California crew said they could come back in June, after things slowed down, sort of. This was good, because the shearing contractors who depend on foreign (mostly New Zealand) shearers lose their crews as the visas run out in late May. I will say that hardly any American crews exist, and the industry needs its foreign shearers to “get the clip out.”
We did get through the lambing, which was inevitable due to the certainty of birth. This left us with several thousand wooly ewes, with lambs at side. At this point, we not only needed to shear the ewes, but we had several thousand lambs to dock.
We decided that we could shear and dock at the same time—in fact, that we had to. Luckily, our California shearing crew was flexible, and was willing to move their portable shed every day to the site of each ewe and lamb bunch. We set up corrals so that the ewes could run straight ahead into the shearing shed, and the lambs could be drafted off to side pens and into a docking line.
Usually, to minimize stress on sheep and human crew alike, we bring the ewes with lambs in in bunches of 300 or so. With the shearing/docking situation, we had to do each entire band at a time—typically 850 or so ewes, and their lambs—usually about thousand. We had to do this because we couldn’t separate the ewes and young lambs for more than a few hours. As I told the wool buyer, “Take a good look, because you’ve never seen this before and I hope you never see it again!”