Sheep are raised on our farm for two reasons — meat and wool. Finding a shearer for a few sheep and having them booked for when it was convenient for us has always been a hassle. Then there is the cost of shearing compared to our proceeds from the wool itself. So when I saw an ad for a sheep-shearing workshop being sponsored by the Manitoba Sheep Association (MSA), I knew that if my son would take the course he could become our resident sheep shearer, making shearing more convenient and saving us a lot of money, year after year.
The cost of the workshop was $100 plus the $50 expense of a one-night stay at the Chickadee Lane Bed and Breakfast in Steinbach. A family friend purchased a used set of electric hand shears for a fraction of the $600 retail cost because she needs her small flock shorn also. Our deal with our son was that Dad and I would pay for the seminar, he can use our friend’s shears, and our son will have our two flocks to practise on. This is a great deal because it normally costs us $5 per head for ewes and more for rams depending on the shearer. They also charge double for sheep carrying two years’ wool, which ours have due to our inability to have them shorn last summer, making our bill over $500 this year. So by helping him out with the costs and equipment the farm will save $400 just in the first year, and if he enjoys it he can make more money for himself with other farms.
The instructor, Brian Greaves, also showed the hosts Jake and Cathy Thiessen of Pansy, Manitoba how to improve their holding facilities to make handling the sheep less stressful. Before shearing, the sheep are kept in a tight enclosure with a swing gate. When you open the swing gate to catch a sheep they usually run away. So to avoid this it was suggested to build a small decoy pen a few feet ahead of the swing gate. That way when the gate is opened the sheep see the decoy sheep and run towards it. At that point a person grabs the sheep and pulls it sideways towards the shearing floor. A trip bar was installed at about sheep knee height across this doorway, not too high or the sheep can get their legs caught and break a leg, so that as the sheep is dragged sideways to the shearing floor they trip and are easy to twist into the shearing position. This not only saves time, it helps to keep bedding out of the wool clips.
Once the wool is off the sheep we have to decide what we are going to do with it. The majority of the wool will go to Canadian Woolgrowers Cooperative and we have to care for it as outlined below to guarantee the best return possible.
Keeping the sheep off of feed or water for 12 hours will make the sheep more comfortable when they are sitting to be shorn.
Keep the shearing area clean of bedding and wool. The shearer should have a piece of plywood to stand on and it should be swept clean between sheep.
Never shear wet wool or pack wet wool. It moulds.
Keep contaminated wool, belly wool and short pieces separate.
Shaking the fleece out will remove short pieces so they don’t get folded in and shipped.
Coloured fleeces should be kept separate and sheep shorn last so as not to contaminate the premium white wool. The coloured fleeces are very popular with hand spinners though, so advertising them privately is a good idea.
Once the wool is skirted, we put ours on a livestock panel placed overtop of two stall dividers, and all the debris and tag is removed. The sides are folded in thirds, roll fleece from rear of animal to front, flesh side down. It is then placed in the wool bag.
Do not mix wool in the wool bags. It is all right to ship different categories in the same bag but it is important to separate them by sheets of newspapers.
The rest of the wool will either be sent to a local custom processing mill where we will have it made into either quilt batts, felt for making boot liners or wool to be used for knitting. Some of the fleeces will be kept separate and advertised on our website for artisans to purchase for hand spinning.
The mill charges less if the wool has been washed first and of course if we decide to experiment with a drop spinner this year it also has to be cleaned. We will use the washing machine method. Wool has to be washed because leaving the grease in the wool will make it difficult to dye later.
Fill the washer with very hot water. Add liquid detergent — about a cup. Turn off the washer. Gently put your fleece in the washer tub. Close the lid and let the fleece soak for about 45 minutes. This can also be done in the bathtub for small amounts of fleece.
Turn washer to the end of the SPIN cycle. Spin the water out of fleece. Lift the fleece out and set it aside.
Fill the washer tub with very hot water again. Put the fleece back in and let soak for about 30 minutes.
Turn washer to the end of the SPIN cycle. Spin the water out of the fleece. At this point, sort out the fleece that is clean enough to dry. If fleece is especially fine or dirty, you may need to repeat the wash and spin steps a few more times. Fine wool sheep like our Rambouillet wool sometimes takes more than one wash.
Use hot water with about 1/2 cup of white vinegar and soak fleece 30 minutes for the last rinse, and then spin it out.
Spread the fleece to air dry on a towel or drying rack. We use a livestock panel over two sawhorses out in the sun.
When it is dry it is ready to take to the mill or process at home.
Now with all of this new information in hand all we have to do is wait till the weather settles and we can get our sheep shorn. We can hardly wait!
Debbie Chikousky farms at Narcisse, Manitoba
E-mail her at [email protected]