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How and When to Shear a Sheep

By   /  March 28, 2016  /  2 Comments

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As it gets harder and harder to find someone to shear your sheep, you might consider doing it yourself. If you’re new to the idea, here are a couple of videos from Pennsylvania State University Extension to get you started.

In this first video, Michael Fournier introduces you to the clippers and how to properly set up the blades. The key is to get the blades set up correctly, and Michael says if it takes you 30 minutes to get it done correctly, take the time. It ensures you’ll have a better experience (i.e. you’ll actually be able to shear the sheep instead of just dulling your blades).

And here’s the link for tablet readers.

In his second video, Michael shows how to hold the sheep and move through the shearing process. Shearing a sheep is a little like ballet, where you move your feet through different positions. The difference of course is that in this case, the placement of your feet and legs allows you to firmly but comfortably hold the sheep so that it doesn’t move during the shearing process.

And here’s the link for tablet readers.

Because I don’t have sheep, I talked to Bill Fosher an On Pasture author who runs sheep on Edgefield Farm. He says “This is the standard pattern and technique used for shearing sheep, and it’s a pretty good video. There are some self-taught shearers who have come up with their own patterns, but they are never as efficient as this one. It’s the pattern that I use when I shear with hand blades as well.”

If you’re interested in blade shearing, here’s a video Bill sent on. He says, “The shearer shown in the video, Kevin Ford, was nearly always on my shearing crew, and he could nearly keep up with the power shearers, usually tallying 125 a day or so to the power shearers’ 150. The production values of the video are poor, but it’s enough to get the idea.”

While I’ve never sheared a sheep myself, I feel like these three videos give me what I need to know if I were suddenly faced with the job. That doesn’t mean I’d be good at it. In fact, I’d probably have to watch one step, do it, and then watch the next step before doing that one. But with patience, I think I could become a good sheep shearer. I hope this helps you get on the road to being a sheep shearer too!

When Should You Shear Sheep?

With decades of experience with sheep, I asked Bill to answer this question for us.

Here's a picture illustrating Bill's point.

Here’s a picture illustrating Bill’s point.

“When to shear sheep is a question that will vary from flock to flock and it depends on management. When we were lambing in February, I liked to shear in December when we brought the ewes in to the barn. This accomplished several things: it kept the wool clean, as wool gets very dirty in the barn and during lambing. It made more ewes fit in the same space. A ewe with three inches of wool on her is six inches wider than a shorn ewe. Taking 1800 pounds of wool of the flock also meant that the barn stayed dryer. Wool holds a lot of moisture, even when the sheep aren’t outdoors. Last but not least, it made it easier for lambs to find their mothers teats — less chance of accidentally sucking on a dangling bit of fleece.

“The drawbacks were that they required more energy to maintain body condition than they would have in full fleece, and once they were shorn in the dead of winter, they were inside the barn 24/7 until after lambing. I always leave more wool on the sheep than is shown in this video. Power shearers can use a cover comb to leave about 1/4 inch of wool, and blade shearing naturally leaves more behind. Some shearers don’t like to use cover combs because they do slow you down a little bit, but most will do it if you ask.

Some shorn ewes and their lambs in New South Wales. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Some shorn ewes and their lambs in New South Wales. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

“For my ewes that lambed outside in May, I usually delayed shearing as late into the end of April as possible and used a cover comb or hand blades and made sure that I had some woods or other cover that I could run them into if cold rain threatened. In 25 years, this went badly twice. One year we had 4 inches of snow on May 12, right in the middle of lambing. Although I was panicky the whole time — I had 150 first-time ewes lambing — there were no problems. No lambs or ewes lost, despite being freshly shorn. The other time was a rainstorm that started on Friday of Mother’s Day weekend and lasted until the following Monday. It was in the 40s, pouring rain and windy the whole time. The ewes were shivering on Sunday, and I lost three lambs out 20 that were born during that storm, despite the sheep having some shelter from the wind and rain in a grove of evergreens.

“The following year I delayed shearing until June — after lambing was over — to provide better protection from a similar cold rain and wind event, but found that I had much dirtier wool. The fact that it had been a 500 year storm made me rethink whether I needed to alter my management to guard against it.”

Bill was also kind enough to share two quotes about shearing:

“I shear six sheep a year so that I remember why I hire it done.” — Bill Fosher

“You know why I shear sheep? Because it feels so good when I stop.” — Bruce Clement

Do you have some ideas to add to this mix? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

2 Comments

  1. Dan Macon says:

    While I do some small flock shearing, I still hire out the shearing of our own sheep. I find that if I’m shearing, our wool doesn’t get prepared for market as well. Like one of the prior comments suggested, unless you shear frequently, you’re never quite in shape. I can shear one of our ewes in about 5 minutes – my contract shearer does it in about 60 seconds.

    That said, there are a couple of tips I’d offer for new sheep producers about shearing. First and foremost, pay attention to what your shearer asks for in the way of set up and preparation. Sheep should be kept off feed and water overnight before shearing – an empty rumen and an empty bladder makes the shearing more comfortable (and safer) for the sheep and shearer alike. A level space with good lighting is essential. I always ask my customers to provide a 4×8 sheet of plywood or a rubber stall mat to shear on – I don’t bring my own as I don’t want to create a biosecurity problem. When we’re shearing our own sheep, I provide lunch for the shearer and the crew – and I tip the shearer (usually by providing a freezer lamb). Shearers are out there – but like any other service provider, they should be treated well!

  2. Gene Schriefer says:

    I learned to shear sheep over 25 years ago, if you’re reasonably good its a decent wage. however, unless you do it full time your body never quite gets in shape. As the years pass the recovery takes longer and longer. I have hired shearers more recently and I appreciate every effort they make. Having sheared sheep for other people that do not know how there is a lack of appreciation for the work and skill it requires.

    Every shepherd should learn to shear, even if they hired it done afterwards. Every shearer worth his salt can give you hours of horror stories of poorly managed flocks and wool, inadequate facilities, and wannabe shepherds too stubborn to learn how to improve. Ignorance is curable, stupid is forever.

    IMO – If one is not focused upon producing and marketing high value wool, (there is money to made still with wool) hair sheep which shed their hair (not wool) should be a serious consideration.

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