Melt and mush, wet and mud

As one would expect, the shepherding world is heavily intertwined with the seasons and the weather. The sheep graze when the weather is warm and grass grows, and they eat hay when the cold temperatures hit and the fields and vegetation go dormant. Breeding season is situated to avoid the heat of the summer and yet take advantage of the fertility peak that is based on daylight cycles. Lambing season is calculated so that all lambs have arrived before the heavy Iowa fly season in late spring. Each year is generally a repetition of the year before and a preview of the year after; the only changes being those slight adjustments that we make to fine-tune the workings of the flock.

This year’s Winter Shearing of our ewes is scheduled for January 20th, and almost all of my current activity is focused on preparing for that day – but I can only do so much. I can get all of the paperwork ready, mend all of our damaged coats, prepare the food for all of our volunteers, and so many more of the tasks that go into a successful shearing day. What I cannot do is control the weather – and the weather will play a big role in any scheduled shearing.

Now, I know that when you read those last words, you likely were thinking something along the lines of, “Of course, weather would play a role – you would want warm weather so that the sheep and the workers aren’t too cold, right?” Actually, that isn’t quite right. Surprisingly, I would much prefer cold weather to warm. Let me try to explain.

Cold weather on shearing day isn’t a problem for the sheep, since they are still wearing their heavy wool coats when we begin on that cold and chilly morning. The body heat of the sheep and workers heats up the barn as we shear , and it is seldom cold enough to cause problems with either the humans or the sheep. I’ve come to realize that the sheep are more than happy to be rid of their wool when the time comes – cold weather or not. Our older ewes are generally quite happy at the prospect, often lining up at the gate to the shearing floor to “volunteer” for shearing. The younger ewes are understandably more afraid, having had no experience to fall back on. Yet overall, our sheep are quite happy to be free of their wool after shearing, often playing and gamboling like young lambs. Of course, we provide them with ample hay and access to not only the barn, but heat lamps are ablaze within so that they can adjust their environment to their liking: outside for a bit of cooler fresh air, inside for relief from the wind or for a bit of warmth, and under a heat lamp if more heat is desired. It is up to them to find their ideal temperature.

Although our shearing date is still far enough out that the weather forecast is not available, our current weather in Iowa is quite warm, with highs in the 40’s. The sheep are hot in full fleece, but that will soon change. Yet, there is another issue. Those warm temperatures mean that all of the fields where our sheep currently live have turned to mud and mush – and that could be a problem. Wool is an incredible thing in many ways, but for today’s blog, the important trait is that it is incredibly absorbent, holding up to 30% of its weight in water without feeling wet. Although wool is naturally water-repellent, it will eventually begin to hold moisture – and sheep living in wet outdoor conditions do eventually carry wet wool on their backs. One wet fleece is not so much of an issue, but fifty-three wet fleeces – well, that’s an entirely different thing!

When we shear our ewes, we are shearing between forty and fifty-five ewes in the one day. At the end of January 20th, 2018, I will have fifty-three individually bundled fleeces lining my dining room, awaiting my skirting and prep for sale. In most cases, we’ve taken good care of this wool for an entire year, keeping it protected from contamination and dirt, from UV damage and drying winds. In short, after a full year of specialized care, we will harvest the results of our efforts and release our sheep from the confines of their individual wooly prisons. Yet, shearing the wool is not a guarantee that the fleece will be worthy of sale. Some of these fleeces will sit in my dining room for up to two weeks before I can get to them – and wet wool sitting for two weeks will begin to grow mold. After all of the care that this wool has recieved, to ruin it because of mold growing on wet wool would be a small disaster!

Admittedly, there are ways to dry fleeces. When there are only a few wet bundles, we take them down into our finished basement, open the bundles and spread them across each of the bedsheets that hold the wrapped fleeces. In a few days, the fleeces dry. The problem is that our basement space is limited – and each fleece requires between 10-20 square feet to lay flat and dry! Even on a good day, we can’t manage over about a dozen wet bundles.

So once again, the weather forecast has my attention. As each day’s forecast brings us closer to shearing day, I watch and hope for cold and dry. Cold temperatures would freeze up the fields, and dry weather would allow the fleeces to dry out before shearing. We always have some wet fleeces, but this year, I’m really hoping that’s all we’ll have!



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