When I walk down to the barn, the air is filled with the plaintive bleating of ewes who are penned in the barn. It’s been raining every evening and they need to be dry for their shearing. Justin oils up his clippers. He is standing on a six by six foot piece of indoor outdoor carpeting that is stained with lanolin and sheep manure from years of use.
He and his brother Scott have been helping shear sheep on the family farm since they were eight years old. Like all farm kids, they started in the wool bag which hangs from a seven foot high frame. This splintery structure holds the wool sack vertical so the fleeces can be dropped in. When the wool froths out of the top, someone must climb up and drop down into the bag to tromp on the fleeces until they fill every corner of the bag and make a tight tube. When we were first married, that was my job. It’s stinky and hot, so when the boys were old enough I gladly turned it over to them. A well packed bag will hold around twenty fleeces and weigh around one hundred thirty pounds. After wool packing, the boys graduated to fleece gathering and then to sheep catching. Justin sheared his first sheep when he was twelve years old.
Everything is ready, so Scott jumps in the stall and catches the first ewe by her head. A drench gun attached to a plastic bladder bag hangs from a rusty nail on the barn wall, and he slips the metal tip of it into her mouth. She pulls back, but he holds on until the two-pump dose of wormer has been delivered. Then Scott wrestles the ewe out the door to his brother. Justin twists the ewe until she is propped up on her rump. He makes his first pass with the clippers across her belly. They chatter and click as Justin pulls the ewe back into his thighs. He shears her left hip and then steps between her back legs with his right foot. The wool falls away from the ewe like a fluffy blanket as he glides the clippers up her neck to her head. She kicks and struggles, so Justin shifts his hold and admonishes her, “You aren’t accomplishing nothing. You’re just gonna get yourself in trouble.”
The clippers buzz as Justin swivels them around to her left shoulder, and Scott darts forward with an oil can. He drips a fine stream across the comb and cutters until they are singing their chicka-chacka song again. Then with a deft twist Justin lays the languid ewe on her right side. She seems to be enjoying the tickle of the buzzing clippers. He pins her to the ground with a knee and makes several more passes with the comb until her left side is clean. The curved teeth leave raised stripes in the wooly stubble across her ribs. Then Justin steps across her body with his right foot. He grabs her ear and pulls the ewe’s head up, shearing around her right side as he rolls her into a sitting position. A few more passes and the ewe is released. She jumps to her feet, ears flapping and trots off leaving her wool behind on the mat. The whole operation has taken less than three minutes.
A good shearer makes the job look easy. I tried it once. I lost my ewe three times and each time Joe had to chase her down, drag her back, and set her up in the correct position. He was exhausted by the time I made the last pass across the ewe’s hip. It took me thirty minutes and the poor sheep had random tags of wool hanging everywhere. She looked like she had been sheared in a blender.
Twenty six years ago, wool sold for around eighty cents a pound. So, the average ewe yielded $4.80 worth of wool. Shearers got two dollars a head to shear, and selling wool was a profitable venture. Now, wool is bringing around fifty cents a pound and the cost of shearing has risen to three dollars an animal. A farmer is lucky to break even. But, the sheep must be sheared. Justin told me he hates shearing. It’s back breaking work, but when I asked him why he did it, he said, “How’d you like to have to wear a wool coat all summer long?” I hope the sheep appreciate their shepherd’s loving care