The final countdown

Tomorrow is a big day at Peeper Hollow Farm. Within a few short hours, we will harvest a full year’s growth of fleece from our 51 ewes: 29 Romeldales (19 adults and 10 lambs) and 22 Romneys (20 adults and 2 lambs). We’ll then haul 51 bundles of wool into the house, each weighing an average of about 11 pounds (13.2 lbs on average for the Romneys, and about 9.1 lbs on average for the Romeldales) for a total of about 560 pounds of wool!

In order for the day to flow smoothly, we will have 2 shearers and a team of 16 people here to help (in addition to Rick and me). Our helpers are divided into teams that cover every aspect of the shearing process: catching and uncoating the sheep, initial fleece skirting on the shearing floor, sweeping the shearing floor, bundling the sheared wool, sampling the wool for fiber diameter testing, weighing the scrap wool pulled off on the shearing floor, coating and immunizing the sheared ewes, and substituting in for our help when they need a break. There is no room for simply watching — everyone has made arrangements in advance and has a job to do. Every job has enough downtime to give workers the opportunity to watch the process — and we encourage people to swap jobs, too, so they can learn the responsibilities of the various parts of the whole.

With so many people helping to make shearing day run smoothly, we go through a lot of food. Since people begin arriving around 8 a.m., we have a breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, coffee, hot cocoa and juice when they arrive. Each person receives a Peeper Hollow Farm 2017 Shearing T-shirt as a thank-you gift and a name badge with their first assignment. Many people choose to layer their new T-shirt over their clothes for the day.

Our workers and our sheep will be ready when the shearers arrive around 9 a.m. The ewes will have spent the night locked into the barn in hopes that their fleeces will be dry for shearing — although with this year’s weather, that is doubtful. (It’s been so humid that it was raining inside the barn earlier this week, finally ending on Thursday morning!) Regardless, we will shear the wool off, and if the fleeces are wet, we’ll figure out a way to dry them!

Once the shearers are set up, the catch-and-uncoat team will bring out the first two ewes to be sheared: January and her daughter Nisan, both white Romeldales. We always begin with white wool before colored and fine wool before coarse, so the order is white Romeldales (3 of them with Sweet Pea), colored Romeldales (26 that will be brought forward by depth of color), then white Romneys (9 total), and finally colored Romneys (13, again in order by depth of color and ending with Ora). Their coats are removed just before they enter the shearing floor to avoid any fleece contamination. As soon as they are sheared, they’re led from the shearing floor, receive an immunization booster and a clean coat fitted to their new much-smaller size, and are released back into the holding pen.

The fleece is carefully removed from the shearing floor in one piece and carried to a waiting bed sheet to which an ID card has been stapled. It takes a bit of experience to handle the fleece that this point so that when the bundle is opened and the fleece tipped out in my dining room, the fleece is easily spread and skirted. Inexperienced shepherds always have a hard time with this step — there’s a tendency to want to tuck the edges of the fleece under, but this causes a twist in the final bundle. I simply scrunch and lift, throw it onto the sheet, and allow it to spread a bit and blow off any second cuts that I missed on the shearing floor.

We have sampled the wool from our newest sheep every year, the ewes in January and the rams in May. This process allows us to learn the average fiber diameter and the uniformity of fleece of every sheep in our flock. We have sampled at their first shearing for many years now — at the age of 10-12 months for ewes and about 16 months for rams. But after looking over our data, I decided last year that we will no longer test our Romney ewe lambs at their first shearing — we will wait until their second shearing (as yearlings, nearly two years old). Their fleece doesn’t really stabilize until then, and I’ve found that the earlier samples needed to be repeated the next year. Delaying the samples for this breed will save us some money and give us more accurate data for comparison. The Romeldales will continue to be tested at about one year of age, as they seem to mature earlier and the tests give us good insight into their adult fleece.

When our shearing is done, our group will split: half will come into the house to celebrate and the other half will move with the shearers to two nearby farms before returning here for dinner and sheep talk! Even as sore and tired as we will be, nearly everyone will stay for the good food and conversation that we all look forward to every year. There are few other places that we can find so many people wanting to talk about all things sheep: problems, solutions, funny incidents, you name it!

It won’t be long now!

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