By David Thacker, Show & Tell Guest Writer
I grew up in a family that has sheared sheep since my great grandfather. My grandpa used to drive around after church on Sundays with his three daughters and three sons and stop at farms with sheep to ask if they needed sheared.
Naturally, all three boys sheared sheep growing up, as did their sons and I.
My uncle Matt sheared around 15,000 head a year when I was old enough to join him all over Indiana and surrounding states to watch, help and learn. I would attempt to catch sheep for him, bag wool, get oil for the shears, new combs, cutter, and so on.
We, the grandkids, were not allowed to start shearing until we were 14. Uncle Matt was – and still is – known as one of the cleanest shearers in the country. I learned from one of the best.
I still remember my first day shearing. Uncle Matt was asked to put on a shearing school on behalf of Midwest shearers. They trailered in several loads of Rambouillets. For those not familiar with the breed, they have wool from tail to nose and it is a chore to shear them, even for a seasoned shearer.
After a long, hard day, I made my way through twelve ewes. At the end of the day uncle Matt pulled me aside and told me how hard I worked and how proud he was of me for staying after it – and that it gets easier.
Over the years I sheared many more, both with uncle Matt and alone, all over the place and for several operations. I won three amateur Indiana State Fair sheep shearing competitions along the way.
Here are some tips I learned from the best that might be helpful for you:
- Put your herd in a small pen with you and your setup in a corner. Try to point toward the light if possible.
- Do not put down fresh bedding the day before you plan to shear.
- It is harder but safer to shear with a 17 tooth comb versus a 13 or 9. As the teeth are closer together on the 17, it is harder to push through the wool but harder to cut the skin as well. You also get a closer cut for sale lambs to look the best. If you feel up to the challenge of a 9 tooth comb in the summer, it leaves a little wool on the hide to help keep flies at bay.
- YOU WILL CUT THE SHEEP! It is not much different than when you cut yourself shaving. Don’t worry, there are only a few major areas you need to be extra careful:
- On ewes be careful of the vulva and tits. I was taught to guard the tits with my hand using the index and pinky finger, covering them, and go right out your hand with the hand piece.
- With rams you need to be careful of the stem, which you guard with your hand and the bag. If you’re not comfortable shearing the bag you can leave the wool on; it rarely gets too long there anyway.
- On all sheep you need to be careful not to catch the ear, as it easily fits between the comb causing a bad cut. But again, it is not life threatening.
- Also, look for late season bred ewes to have a milking vein that can protrude from the belly. On all sheep, the tendon on the back of the rear legs is easy to cut and a major artery is there. Be careful there because they tend to want to kick when you shear the back legs.
- Learning the best position for the sheep will keep them from constantly fighting. Do not get frustrated and over work the sheep, turn loose one you are struggling with, and grab them at the end for another go. Trust me, it works sometimes. Also remember: The tamer the sheep, the bigger the fight shearing. IT’S ALMOST A LAW.
- Keep your comb and cutter sharp. It is far easier to sharpen a blade earlier than fight through the wool for one more. Try to oil shears after every sheep, more if you’re not moving through well. We always just poke a nail through the top of a quart of motor oil and spray it on the comb while it is still running.
- It is a much larger chore to shear your entire group than just a few each night. It will seem less overwhelming, and if you don’t let the wool get out of control there really is no time limit.
- In an operation with higher-end sheep, I suggest shearing twice a year – in the spring and fall. If you lamb in a barn, cold weather isn’t a huge concern and it helps the lambs find a tit easier.
- The best tip for limiting cuts is to use your other hand to grab the hide and roll your wrist down to pull out the wrinkles. When you go up the neck and out the leg, turn your hand piece 20 degrees or so to limit the space a wrinkle can get into the comb.
- Setting up your comb and cutter on your hand piece incorrectly can make a hard job harder. You should have 1/8”-1/4” of space between the top of the comb and the top of the cutter. You should also have equal distance coverage left to right of the cutter on the comb. If this is off, placing your hand on it while it is running should cause more vibration on one side or the other. The side that vibrates more needs to be adjusted in until it is running smoothly.
I hope you find these tips helpful, and if there is anything else you were wondering please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to all the sheep producers out there and to my uncle Matt who taught me much more than how to shear sheep.