We will be shearing our ewes on January 24, and like every year, once the Holidays pass, time seems to really fly. There is much to do and little time to do it and I am definitely feeling the crunch.
When we sheared our sheep the very first year, we sheared the entire group – all three of them, one ram and two ewes – at the same time. There is no right or wrong time to shear, so we sheared in May, thinking that this would keep the sheep cooler during the hot summer months. I did little to prepare except clear out a spot in the barn for the shearer to work and then waited there until he arrived. I had no idea what to do with the wool, but I decided to figure that out later – we just needed to get their heavy wool coats off – and off they came soon after his arrival. I threw each fleece into a corner of the barn until I got cardboard boxes, and the job was done. The fleeces were heavily contaminated with vegetative material and I knew I had to do better in future years.
Before long, another year had gone by and it was again time to shear. We had a better idea of what was involved with wool production; I had read a lot so I was better prepared. Instead of searching for boxes in our basement after the shearer left, I had five boxes already in the barn for the now-expanded flock. I had also coated the sheep through the winter months when the worst of the contamination occurs, hoping for cleaner fiber. These small improvements led to better quality wool and a more efficient shearing day – and we still improve something in some way every year. Usually, the day after shearing, Rick and I call a “meeting” – we discuss what went well, what went wrong, and how to improve upon the “master plan” for next year.
As a result, our shearing day has now become super organized. We line up volunteers weeks in advance. We need a total of fourteen to sixteen people to pull it off well. With fewer sheep, we could get by with fewer helpers, but trying to move fifty or more sheep through the process takes time, and having more help allows things to run smoothly and efficiently. Rick and I could easily do it ourselves for up to twenty or twenty-five sheep. Beyond that, having help speeds things up. When we had a flock of no more than about thirty-five, we only needed a half-dozen or so helpers – but now, with over fifty sheep to shear (from our flock and various small flocks in our area who have bought all their flock of two or three sheep from us), we need a fairly big crowd!
We cannot allow spectators – I wish we could, but there is simply no space. Everyone who comes has to take a job and help. The people who attend are usually fiber artists (who get first dibs on the fleeces if they help out), shepherds wanting to help and sometimes learn, and sometimes people on our waiting list for lambs in the spring who want to see what they are getting into. Oh, and then there are the kids: from eight years old to high school seniors, they come because they like working with the sheep – and we let them because we need the energy and enthusiasm they bring. In the end, we have about fourteen visitors come for shearing, many for the first time – and all of these visitors need to be organized in very short order into a smoothly functioning single unit that gently moves our heavily pregnant ewes from the pen to the uncoating station, onto the shearing floor, then to the immunization and coating station, and then back into the main pen.
Each volunteer knows long before shearing day what their role will be. They are welcome to switch jobs with other workers anytime they like once we begin, but every person is assigned a task to start with. Besides the movement of sheep through the system, there is another whole group of volunteers who work with the wool once it is removed from the sheep: from sweeping the shearing floor to keep contaminants out, to taking fiber samples for testing, to weighing the scrap removed in the barn, and bundling each fleece separately, there is much to attend to.
Unlike the early days, we now bundle each individual fleece in its own bed sheet. In preparation for shearing, I make sure that we have at least fifty-five sheets washed and mended, ready to keep our fleeces clean. In the weeks before shearing, I’ve printed out a stack of cards, each containing the name and number of one of our ewes. That card is stapled to the bed sheet as the ewe is sheared and it then follows that fleece all the way through every step until it finally becomes the identification tag on the bag of wool purchased by our customers.
In these last days before shearing, it is up to me to make sure it will all go off smoothly on shearing day. I am in touch with our shearer and all of our volunteers to make sure everyone knows what they are doing and when they should be here. I am preparing clipboards for noting fleece weights and recording immunizations. I am making lists of needed groceries and supplies to have on-hand. I am mending coats so that we don’t run out on shearing day. I am trying to anticipate anything that we might need and make sure it is here when they all arrive on the 24th. Then, in the last couple of days, I will prepare our meals (since we serve all three that day: breakfast, lunch and dinner) so that when I wake up on the morning of Saturday the 24th, I simply need to give each group of volunteers their supplies when they arrive, and we are ready to shear!
Yes, it has changed a lot since those first three sheep, but it isn’t any less exciting! Shearing day is the one moment when the fleece/fiber work of this farm for the entire year comes to fruition, and that is saying something! The fact that we share this day with so many others only adds to the fun – and it won’t be long now!