Counting (and shearing) sheep

Sets of sheep are moved from outside into the waiting pens throughout the day, with the line moving at a rapid pace. Photos by Melody Montgomery

Crew member Josh Ridgeway starts shearing.

Ranch Owner Nancy McDonald guides sheep to the chutes for shearing.

Freshly shorn sheep work their way back outside.

Wool is piled and packed for market.

During the week of Feb. 12, Judith Basin County Commissioner Cody McDonald and his wife Nancy McDonald oversaw the shearing of nearly 1,500 sheep at their Judith Basin ranch off Ubet Road. This event took the couple four days this year; usually it would take two-and-a-half days, but the weather was an obstacle, with snow and drifting.

With a crew of 11 on the busiest day, the team worked efficiently and nearly nonstop to trim up all the ewes prior to lambing. Cody McDonald said that he “tries to shear 30 days before lambing.” This is before the lambs are too big in utero, and helps ensure they will not be lost due to stress from shearing, said McDonald. He added the main reason for shearing prior to lambing was to help the lambs find the teats to nurse, where otherwise they might be mistaken for clumps of wool. A second reason is because the sheep are much larger with their full coat; shearing gives the ewes and lambs more room in the 4x4 pens, or “jugs,” where they are placed after lambing. The extra room without the added wool helps prevent the ewes from lying on their lambs.

The shearing crew included members of the Surprise Creek Colony, as well as Josh Ridgeway, the McDonalds and other help.

“It’s so hard to find good, hard workers, and when you find them, you better stick with them and pay them good,” said McDonald.

And did the crew ever work hard, efficiently moving the ewes through the pens and into the shearing area without taking a beat. While the crew did take scheduled breaks for lunch and mid-afternoon, otherwise they were fully focused on the task at hand. They were moving so fast, some of the photos from this event were simply a blur. While it has been said sheep shearing is hard work, this experience unequivocally proved this statement.

“They earn their money, that’s for sure,” said McDonald.

Shearer Josh Ridgeway took a brief minute to discuss the process. He said the ewes can weigh up to 160 pounds. They are not penned or roped during the shearing; the shearer is the one who handles them to move them and remove the wool. Some of the “old guys” are positioned in hanging harnesses to help support their backs while shearing, said Ridgeway in a joking manner.

The electric shears are extremely sharp, and the wool consistency can vary from sheep to sheep, meaning the person shearing must adjust the force applied. The sheep occasionally get little nicks from the shears, but these nicks do not really harm them, said Ridgeway, and are comparable to “cutting your face shaving.” If the sheep are seriously nicked, the crew quickly stiches them up; although this is more rare. While it is nearly backbreaking work for the crew, “it’s good money” and a good living, said Ridgeway.

The event yielded around 12,000 pounds of wool, which accounts for about 10 percent of the ranching family’s income. Each sheep offers up about 8 pounds of wool. This year’s harvest was delivered to market in Billings on Friday Feb. 16. From there, a broker pairs the wool up with a buyer, who has a specific type of wool in mind. Buyers’ preferences are primarily based on how fine the wool is and its length, or “staple,” in wool terms.

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