Wooldn’t you know it? Finding spring in a sheep’s wool

By: 
JENNY GESSAMAN
Reporter

Thomas Stahl drags a sheep to his shearing station Saturday morning.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

According to the USDA, agriculture is consistently Montana’s leading industry. I grew up in Highwood, surrounded by farms and ranches, and I now work writing news for a community dependent on the industry.

Confession: I know little to nothing about ag.

My mom came from a farm, one her siblings continue, but studied microbiology and worked in a hospital lab. I lived in town, and moved to a much larger town for college.

The point is, I am still learning. And with a spring that has been stingy with its sunny weather and budding life, I wanted to tackle an agricultural topic that also signified the season. That turned out to be sheep shearing.


Starting with a blank page
We did not have sheep that I knew of around Highwood. This means I knew nothing as I drove out to Pat Weichel’s place, save that physical labor and working with animals both called for work boots, jeans and generally clothes you don’t mind getting dirty.

Weichel lives on Forest Grove Road. He’s raised sheep since 2010, but he keeps his shearing season a little later than most: Sheep producers usually gather their wool in February or March. His herd is made up of roughly 50 animals, about 20 of which are blackface,

When Weichel said this, I was a little stunned. As he kept saying it, I realized that’s just how you talk about sheep. The animals can be identified by breed, but in general terms are called out by facial color: There’s whiteface, blackface and the mix of the two, known as smutface.

For the record, although smut does not sound nice, I thought their faces were pretty.

These classifications are especially relevant for shearing, it turns out. Weichel explained different “faces” of sheep turn out different qualities of wool, with the whiteface wool going for the highest price.

Weichel had already brought his herd in from grazing, and, along with his friend Ron Dean, was waiting for the shearing crew. Weichel has raised sheep, as have his kids for 4-H projects, but he said raising the animal differs from the skill of shearing it.

“[The shearers] are way faster at it then I am,” he said. And then Weichel laughed.

“It would probably take me two days to shear all those.”

He and Dean still helped with the process: The herd had been separated by facial color, and the two men were ready to steer sheep into a single-file chute, when it arrived.

That in itself is work. At least one, probably more, weighed more than I do, and none of them wanted anything to do with the buzzing noise coming from one corner of the barn.

Weichel and Dean had their work cut out for them.


Hofer Shearing on the move
The shearing operation was packed into a single dual-cab truck. Four men popped out, and started pulling what I thought was scrap from the truck bed.

Of course I had no idea these pieces were the infrastructure of a sheep-shearing production line. After some carrying, drilling and improvising on the part of the shearers, there stood an entire operation.

We were in a barn, with the unsheared sheep penned in roughly half of the enclosed space. A wooden chute was the only exit from the pen. It butted up against the wall, and its free side was bordered by the shearing platform.

Created by wooden sheets laid over the mud, the platform housed three shearing stations. Each had a metal-pole frame, taller than a man, running its width. These served to hang motors, three total and all bigger than my head.

By the way, did you know sheep shears need a motor to work? Also, sheep shears kind of look like oversized men’s hair clippers.

Beyond these shearing stations stood a four-legged metal stand holding open a huge white bag.

Three men were set to shear and one was ready to sweep and gather wool.

This was Hofer Shearing, a mobile operation out of Surprise Creek Colony in Judith Basin County.

Now the sheep were going to be sheared.


Docile is not the word
The goal is this: Get the sheep, all as far away from the chute as possible, lined up to go one by one down the wooden walkway.

This was Weichel’s and Dean’s job. An old door and a cane were used, as well as a lot of shoving and grabbing. Even when they seemed set tight against the barn wall, the animals in line would somehow turn around. Weichel then had to correct them.

I don’t know how this happened. I was never good at geometry, because picturing space in my head was hard, and this seemed just as perplexing. Maybe Weichel manipulated physics.

At the other end of the chute, the Hofer crew were shearing. This I watched quite a bit, because I couldn’t understand how a sheep facing forward in a line was suddenly sitting up, butt on the floor.

This dance between shearer and sheep starts with a clever contraption. The wooden chute looks like solid wood. In actuality, there are wood panels attached to bungees on one side. A shearer steps on a pedal drilled into the panel, and it slides down, revealing a sheep in line.

When this happened, the sheep seemed a step behind. They didn’t really react, but I kept imagining them getting halfway through some expletive phrasing before being yanked from line.

The way this is done should be called the Montanan Riverdance. The men would bend over the animal’s back to grab its two front legs, and then pull. This plucks the sheep from its line while the shearer lets go of the panel, restoring chute’s wall.

The sheep is now standing slightly as the shearer lifts its front legs and drags it back. The man I watched would then lower his subject a little, loop one of its front legs back and between his own, and curl over the sitting sheep.

This was all accomplished in under 10 seconds.

At this point, the sheep kind of . . . quit. They quit. They know they’re stuck, or think they’re going to die. Either way, they give up: No more kicking, maybe some bleating and, once in a while, a flop or two.

The sheep goes from sitting to laying as the shearer work his way down its body. The process ends when the sheep is naked, all pink skin from ears to tail. The animal runs out the barn door, its wool left in one huge piece.

That’s the gist of sheep shearing.


Fun facts
For the most part, I observed, although I did try to help near the end.

I work a desk job during the week, but have no problem with physical labor. It was nice to exert myself and get dirty, even if I didn’t have much to show for it.

I found you have to know how to grab and prod a sheep. If you’re me, and you have no idea, the animal just stands there. Or does whatever it wants, taking you with it. No, I don’t think I successfully herded any sheep into the chute.

Dean did make me feel better, though: He pointed out one fluffy escapee of mine was probably 180 lbs., easily beating my 140.

I also discovered sheep don’t just have wool, they have something called lanolin. Also called wool wax, it helps the sheep shed water from their wool and protects their skin. I didn’t really understand when Weichel described it to me, but Hofer actually showed it to me: The lanolin built up on his shears to the point he could scrape it off on the wood pen.

Wool wax felt very waxy, and I didn’t find it particularly smelly.

Shearing is also a lot of work. Weichel and Dean got sweaty: They were wrestling sheep into submission, into a tiny space sheep blatantly did not want to go in.

The shearers were sweaty, too: They were throwing around hundreds of pounds, lifting and repositioning and sometimes even chasing away their customers.

(Freshly sheared sheep are unhappy and often confused, so some attempts to reach freedom ended up reaching corners. Some also resulted in jubilant jump kicks, so I tried to stay clear.)

Sheep shearing is strange, though. Watching a sheep get sheared is almost like seeing the mammalian version of a snake shedding its skin. The shearers really do manage to get all the wool off in one piece, so halfway through, it’s as if you’re watching a new creature being uncovered from under an old skin.

It’s also strange to realize sheep are not fluffy, they’re deep. Their wool is warm, but your fingers definitely sink into it.

Mostly, I realized I have no idea what’s going on around me, and I appreciate those who take a little of their time to explain.

One more fun fact: sheep don’t have wool on the bottom of their stubby tail. It’s like a pink and a white Necco wafer got stuck together.

This world’s amazing.

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