Most breeds of sheep grow wool continuously, so it is important
to shear them at least once per year. In 2013, the average sheep
in the U.S. produced 7.3 lbs. of grease wool. Fleece weights vary
by breed, genetics, and shearing interval. Shearing is usually
done in the spring, so sheep don't get overheated in the summer.
Prior to lambing
Preferably, sheep are sheared prior to lambing. There are many
advantages to shearing sheep prior to lambing. Sheared sheep take
up less room in the barn and around feeders. It is easier for
lambs to nurse sheared ewes. The fleeces will be clearners.
However, sheep that are shorn in
the winter require good nutrition and shelter, as a freshly shorn sheep has a higher critical temperature than a sheep with a fleece. Some producers
shear their sheep twice per year.
Anyone can attempt to shear a sheep, but not everyone will do
a good job. Shearing is a specialized skill. It is hard work.
Shearing requires skill so that sheep are shorn efficiently without
cuts or injuries to the sheep and shearer. If shearing is not
carried out skillfully, it is stressful to the sheep. It is
best to hire a professional shearer to shear sheep.
Small sheep farms often have a difficult time finding someone
to shear their sheep. Small farms can save money by bringing
sheep to a central location for shearing. Producers can learn
to shear by attending shearing schools. Many states hold annual
sheep shearing schools.
Large flocks of sheep are usually sheared by shearing crews who bring a trailer that accomodates shearing, as well as fleece handling and packing.
Before electric shears (up until about the 1880's), sheep were
sheared with hand shears or blades. In some parts of the world
where electricity is limited or not available, sheep are still
blade sheared. Compared to machine-shorn sheep, blade shorn
sheep will have more wool.
The New Zealand method is the most common method of electric
shearing. Many shearers of Spanish or Mexican descent use a
style of shearing that requires the legs of the sheep to be
Electric shears have three basic parts: the handpiece, the comb
and the cutters. Commercial sheep shears, having a powerful
electric motor attached to the ceiling. Portable electric shears
have the motor inside the handle of the handpiece.
Expect to pay $250-500 for a good set of electric shears. More
teeth on a comb generally mean a cut closer to the skin. Cutters
generally have 4 points, triangular protrusions, and attach
to the handpiece by way of four "fingers" that press
them firmly against the comb.
Cutters are the first thing to dull, and you will probably want
about 3 cutters for every comb. Changing cutters is quick, and
it ensures a sharp tool. Remember, dull tools are dangerous
tools. Cutters cost $10-15. When purchasing shearing combs,
it is important to buy a type of comb that is best suited to
the sheep you will be shearing.
Preparing sheep for shearing
A sheep shearer should be contacted well in advance of shearing
time. Sheep should be penned before shearing. They should be
sorted into the following groups: lambs, yearlings, rams and
ewes by breed and/or grade. Sheep should be fasted before shearing.
This will result in a much cleaner shearing floor.
A full stomach also contributes to animal discomfort during
shearing. Wet sheep should not be shorn. Sheep should be sheared
on a clean, dry surface (e.g. wood, carpet, canvas, or concrete).
The shearing area should be swept after each sheep to provide
a clean surface for the next.
After shearing, belly wool and tags should be separated
from the rest of the fleece. Every sheep producer should learn
how to skirt and roll a fleece. To skirt, throw the fleece flesh
side down, so the dirty end of the fleece faces up. Remove off-color
wool, tags around the breach, very short and matted wool, and
other contaminated areas.
Then roll the two sides of the fleece in toward the middle and
roll the fleece from one end to the other. The flesh side will
face out, created a clean, attractive package for the buyer.
It is usually not necessary to tie fleeces. Some wool pools
will discount fleeces that are tied. If fleeces are tied (for
competition), only paper twine should be used.
Skirting is especially important for high value wool, wool that
will be sold to hand spinners, or for fleeces that will be exhibited.
Small producers can package their fleeces in cardboard boxes or
plastic garbage bags. Wool should not be packaged in poly feed
sacks or burlap bags. This will contaminate the wool. Large producers
should pack their wool in large square bales. The preferred packaging
material is clear plastic wool bags.
Different grades or classes of wool should be packaged separately.
All belly wool, tags, off-color, burry, seedy, chaffy, cotted,
stained or dead wool should be handled and bagged separately.
Black wool should be kept separate from white wool. Bags of
wool should be labeled. Properly sorted and labeled wool will
bring more money to the grower. Wool should be stored in a clean,
dry place until ready for market.
Improving Wool Quality
There many steps producers can take to improve the quality of
their wool clip. Since black and colored fibers can seriously
undermine the value of a white wool clip, black, colored, or
spotted sheep should be sheared last and black wool should be
kept separate from white wool. One of the major wool contaminants
is polypropylene: hay baling twine, poly tarps, and poly feed
sacks. Polypropylene should never be allowed to come into contact
Paint branding can be damaging to wool. If paint brands are
used, only approved scourable solutions should be used. Sheep
should not be paint branded prior to shearing time. Medium size
paint irons should be used and the paint should be applied lightly.
Vegetable matter (e.g. seeds, straw, chaff, and burrs) is a
primary source of wool contamination. To help prevent this type
of contamination, sheep should not be bedded on hay or straw
Overhead hay feeders should be avoided. Hays
which allow sheep to poke their heads through will also result
in wool contamination. Poor nutrition can weaken the strength
of the wool fiber and result in breaks in the wool fiber.
The widspread popularity of hair sheep breeds poses a significant
threat to wool quality. Hair is damaging to a wool fleece. The
fleeces from hair x wool crosses should be discarded. Hair x
wool crosses should be sheared last.
If hair sheep and wool
sheep are raised together, hair may get into the fleeces of
the wool sheep. Wool sheep and hair sheep should not be housed
or pastured together when the hair sheep are actively shedding. Ideally, they should never be kept together.
Crutching is a short, quick modification of shearing. Only the
wool in the vulva area and around the udder is removed. If ewes
are ot sheared before lambing, it is a good idea to crotch them.
Crutching offers some of the same advantages as shearing prior
to lambing. Crutching is the removal of wool from the crutch
of a sheep to keep the area dry and less attractive to blowfly
Not All Sheep Require Shearing
It is generally not necessary to shearing hair sheep and
some hair x wool crosses. In addition, many of the primitive
sheep breeds will also naturally shed their coats.
The Shear Facts
Professional sheep shearers can shear sheep in under a minute.
World records are one sheep sheared in 38 seconds; one lamb
sheared in 19.8 seconds; 720 sheep sheared in 9 hours; and 839
lambs sheared in 9 hours. The record for blade shearing was
set in 1892 and still stands: 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes.
In 1994, Australian scientists invented a way of removing the
wool from sheep without shearing. They inject the sheep with
a special hormone, then wrap them in tight hairnets. Three weeks
later, the fleece can be peeled off. The new wool harvest technology
is called Bioclip. Australian scientists also developed
a robot for shearing sheep.
Researchers are currently trying to breed sheep with bare britch
and crutch areas to make shearing easier and to help prevent
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