When the scraper first hits the compacted, manure-laden hay it feels like concrete. There’s just no easy way of getting through that top layer, and I know, because I tried every other tool sitting around the barn on that hot May afternoon. It wasn’t until I came back to the scraper the shepherd had given me in the first place, that I was able to break through to the soft layers of rotting hay beneath. While easier to move about, it has a smell unlike much else. The smell doesn’t bother me much though; within a few hours I am able to see the wide heaving floor boards that remind me just how old of a structure I’m cleaning. Having the floor scraped, raked, and swept should prevent pieces of hay and other “prizes” from getting into the wool on shearing day.
For those of you that have never experienced sheep up close and personal, let me assure you: they are not cuddly cute animals eager to jump over a fence and lull you to sleep—they are strong, stubborn, and loud. Consider perhaps a two hundred pound toddler that doesn’t speak your language. Currently, the farm I live on has about 25 sheep and several lambs. Years ago there were a few hundred and and it was the largest sheep farm in the area. In times past, shearing was easily a multi-day affair. This year it would only take the better part of the morning and early afternoon.
We called in the help of a local sheep shearer named Kevin. He makes his living traveling around the state and shearing people’s sheep for a modest wage. Kevin is a kind looking thin man, with grey hair and wool shoes. Most of all, Kevin is the real deal.
I’d never experienced sheep-shearing day before. I had this idea in my head… there would be some kind of contraption that the sheep would stand in and be held still, similar to a goat milking/medicating stand I’d seen somewhere. Maybe pieces of wood could slide around the head and legs like in the stockade, so that the shearer could have an easier time moving around them with big electric hair clippers. Maybe this daydream is the case somewhere, but what I experienced was nothing like that.
Sheep were held still, not by some wooden contraption, but by Kevin’s sheer force of will, and the sheep were sheared not by large electric clippers but by giant scissors that strapped to Kevin’s hand and looked as if they had been assembled from large kitchen knives. You might think that shearing sheep with scissors would take significantly longer than with electric clippers, but you’d be wrong—provided Kevin was holding the shears. Kevin can shear a sheep in about two minutes.
Undeniably the most important part of a successful shearing day (really, any livestock project) is organization. There needs to be a clear flow to the sheep entering and exiting the shearing area, and a way to keep them contained on both sides of the process. Our barn is set up with two large pens that serve this purpose well. During lambing season we use these pens to separate pregnant ewes from nursing mothers.
One of the pens attaches to a corral next to the feed yard outside the barn, while the other opens directly into the feed yard itself. The sheep are herded into the corral and brought inside the barn in small groups. Sheep are picked out of the group one by one, medicated for worms and sheared. After they are sheared they go to the other pen to join the rest of the sheared sheep and wait to be let outside again. Simple. Except the only part of this that the sheep do willingly is growing the wool and leaving.
I’ve helped around the farm long enough to learn some tricks to controlling sheep. A hand placed firmly under their jaw and around the nose, lifted slightly, is enough to get a single sheep to stay still if you press them against the wall with your body weight. Getting a sheep to stay in one spot while you milk, medicate, inspect, or tag them is one thing. Taking one from a group and hand delivering it for medicating and shearing across the barn is something else. Once a sheep digs in, it doesn’t want to move.
So here I am, the sheep against the wall, me shoving it towards the door of the pen with all my might, it just standing still, resisting me without even trying. Tired of waiting, Kevin came over, took the nose from me, put a hand on it’s hind end and walked it backwards out of the pen in one fluid motion. Sheep can be easily walked backwards if you get a good grip on their nose and hind end. Don’t take me wrong and assume that every sheep will just smile and wink at you when using this technique. It’s possible they haven’t read this article. What I did find though, was that even though they still resisted, their breaking point was something I was often able to outlast or overcome and get them moving in the right direction.
Once brought to the door of the pen, the shepherd administers an oral medication that helps prevent intestinal worms; a common parasite that goes with the territory of eating where you poop. Simultaneously the shepherd’s wife looks up the tag number in the flock’s records. After the sheep has a second to swallow the medication, Kevin grabs it and brings it down to the ground. Once down, he proceeds to lift the front legs up, and stand behind the sheep. This elaborate dance ends with Kevin keeping one hand on the sheep’s nose and the other shearing away with his giant scissors. He works his way around the sheep and ends up with one large piece of wool that is picked clean of all exceptionally dirty pieces and placed in a giant plastic bag.
The bag is about ten feet long and four feet across, it has several small holes for air circulation and is made out of very stout plastic. It’s held straight up and down by a large wooden frame with boards on the sides that enable one to climb up and into the bag in order to stomp down the wool inside to make space for the next batch. It looks a little like it could be part of a lifeguard chair.
While the sheared sheep eagerly walked over to the other pen and joined it’s friends, I started climbing the side of the wooden frame trying to figure out if I was really supposed to jump inside this giant plastic bag of wool, or if that was a joke they told all the farm-hands. I had flashbacks to childhood and being warned that I would suffocate. I remembered warning labels with the misshapen-looking kid unhappily stuck in the bag that his Superman costume came in.
By the time I reached the top, I had decided that yes, I am supposed to jump inside this bag and stomp around. After a bit of assurance from the shepherd and his wife I made the plunge and realized that I didn’t have to worry about suffocating in my Superman-costume bag. There were holes all over for ventilation, and the wooden stand was surprisingly sturdy for its age. Once I got over the idea of jumping around in a plastic bag filled with wool, I was excited to take every opportunity to hop back in. Sort of like when you can’t do enough cannonballs after you stop being afraid of the deep end.