Rick and I were both up early on Saturday morning – there was still much to do and only hours before our shearer and many volunteers/helpers arrived to help us make our ewes more comfortable in these last weeks before lambing. Thankfully, this was the warmest shearing in our sixteen years; so warm, in fact, that many of us shed our heavy coats by lunchtime, working only in shirtsleeves in our Sheep Barn. As the sun and above freezing temps warmed the metal roof, the body heat of fifty ewes and about twenty people helped to make the environment comfortable for working – a rare treat in January in Iowa!
It was originally our anticipation that we would have only our usual shearer, Mason, working here since his wife Ashlie (a vet who often also shears at our farm) was five months pregnant with their third child. Our facilities were all set up for a single shearing floor on Saturday morning when I received a text from them letting us know that when they arrived in just over an hour, we would have two shearers – Ashlie was also planning on shearing! Rick quickly ran to the home improvement store for another couple of pieces of plywood – last summer, we had used the plywood of our usual second shearing floor for another project!
Within an hour, the second shearing floor was set up, our shearers and many workers had arrived, and shearing got underway – but not before we snapped a picture of the pen of unsheared ewes! They seemed to be quite tightly penned as we began – but that was by plan. It is much easier to catch sheep without terrifying them if they don’t have a lot of running space – and we also knew that, as each ewe was returned to the pen without her bulky fleece, the ewes would take up less and less space, making the catching more and more difficult.
The actual shearing began at about 10:45 a.m. with the white Romeldales, and long before 11:15 a.m., we had already moved on to the white Romneys. Although the shearing floor is well-swept during each shearing and before each new sheep comes onto the floor, we still shear our sheep in order by color and fiber diameter so that any cross-contamination between ewes has little impact: the finer Romeldales before Romney (so that if there is any bit of the finer fleece still on the board when we make the change, it does not change the characteristics of the Romney), and white before colored, lighter colored before darker (again, because a bit of white in a light fleece or a bit of lighter fleece in a shade darker is not such a contaminant).
The entire process took until about 3:30 p.m., and there was obviously much more space in the barn now that the sheep each weighed 10-20 pounds less without their heavy fleeces! Our pick-up truck was loaded with bundles of fleece, each identifying its source with a tag listing name and eartag number of the ewe who produced it. We took another hour to move the unbred ewes back up to the storage barn and then feed each group of ewes before we all headed into the house to feed ourselves and celebrate – after a job well-done!
The weather has remained warm for the past couple of days, helping the ewes to shift their metabolism – now they must eat more and warm themselves, since they no longer have their wool coats. Having said that, an observant visitor would quickly notice that their wool is already beginning to come back in as of this morning. In fact, the ewes like January who were pink-skinned and oh-so-vulnerable looking on Saturday already have a thin coating of white fleece pushing out through their skin. It won’t be long before there is once again enough wool on their bodies to help keep them warm. Even so, now that they are sheared, we have turned on the heat lamps in the barn and will continue to run them through lambing – now, keeping the ewes happy and warm, and then later for the benefit of their lambs who can easily chill in cold temperatures since they are wet for some time after birth.
This time shortly after shearing can be a confusing one for the shepherd of any flock. With their wool now removed, the ewes I once knew so well by sight have changed quite dramatically. I no longer have the wool that hangs over their foreheads or the bits at the cheeks to help with identification. Now, the white ewes all look very similar – even between the breeds – and the colored ewes are also very hard to tell apart. I have never had the presence of mind during shearing to take a before and after photo of any particular ewe – there is too much going on! This morning, I did get a series of just such photos from Cristow Farm, who bought a starter flock from us last spring and who also sheared on Saturday right after we did. I am attaching photos of Odessey (originally named Ottawa in our flock), both before and after shearing on Saturday – and you can see for yourself what a difference a bit of wool can make!
So now, I shift my focus to skirting fleece. My dining room is filled with bundles of gorgeous wool – and with a bit of time, they will look even more beautiful when I am finished. I’d better get going – I have plenty to do!