Many Ways to Shear

Some people call this season springtime. I call it Pilates Time.

I find core muscles and flexibility I forgot I had as I bend low to reach a ewe’s lower hind leg. I hold her with my knees so she stays comfortable while the electric clippers purr under her long wool, hidden from my sight and just inches from my fingers.

Meanwhile, my husband, Steve, zips through his ewe’s wool at his shearing station.

Our stations – a plywood sheet and a 1.5 horsepower motor with an articulating arm for Steve and a corded clipper set for me -- are housed in our barn. We shear somewhere between 10 and 20 sheep every sunny day for a month to harvest the wool. The finest fleeces become A Land of Grass specialty products and the rest gets shipped to a warehouse for commodity sales.

Each ewe gets a pedicure, an inoculation and a medical checkup before we turn her loose.

This is far different from the first shearing operation I observed.

I worked as a cattle ranch hand on the Utah-Nevada border, but the neighboring sheep producer hired me as day help when he needed me.

Each April, my job was to set up an intricate labyrinth of portable corrals to organize 3000 sheep on the empty West Desert. The 12-person shearing crew pulled two enclosed semi-trailers up to the new corrals. Each trailer held six shearing stations, with ramps to release the shorn sheep outside and chutes to gather the wool.

Once the infrastructure was set up, my job was to keep the shearing stations full.

The crew members were exotic, hailing from Australia and New Zealand. They followed a shearing route throughout the West, similar to custom wheat harvesters or a carnival crew. They expected to shear my neighbor’s sheep in three days before moving on unless rain stopped them in their tracks.

After a day of shearing at least 100 sheep each, the crew members reinvigorated their muscles at the local motel-bar where beer flowed freely. A shearing crew brought excitement to the entire valley. None of us had a lot in common with them, but we all enjoyed listening to that accent.

Those crews sheared on a far larger scale than Steve and I do, but our techniques are similar.

The clues left from sheep production 100 years ago here at the Graham Ranch suggest differences from both approaches.

The concrete dipping vat buried in the ground outside the barn indicates a mass tick removal bath for the ancestral Graham Ranch sheep.

The door painted in sheep paint documents a summertime, post-lambing shearing season that coincided with Independence Day instead of the spring equinox.

Rusty hand clippers that I found in the pasture offer a glimpse of the core strength, flexibility and tenacity that early 20th century shearers had. They would not need to follow a Pilates video after a day of shearing.

I wonder what they would think of my shearing station today. As I flip another ewe on her side, I wish those artifacts could talk. I would listen all day long.

 

Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise grass-fed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad. She has two children; Will, 18, and Abby, 10. Lisa can be reached at L.Schmidt@a-land-of-grass-ranch.com.

 

Lisa Schmidt