Cleaning up the fleece can add profit to the pocket
March 22, 2019
Spending 30 seconds cleaning up a fleece after shearing can add 10 cents a pound. If a fleece averages 12-13 pounds, a producer can add $1.30 to his pocket in just 30 seconds. However, 95 percent of producers in the US will still just take what they can get.
Cody Chambliss, a sheep producer who runs 600 head Merino ewes near Geddes, South Dakota, tells producers that cleaning each fleece is well worth it. "If I didn't take that extra time on my Merino fleeces, I would lose 50-55 cents a pound, which would be at least $15 a fleece," he says. Merinos are one of the finest wool breeds of sheep in the world, and their wool is considered quite valuable.
Depending upon the market, Chambliss sees producers gaining 15-20 cents a pound just by handling the wool properly. "Wool is paid by yield, cleanliness, length and micron," he explains. "My goal is to change people's perception that their wool is worth nothing. Many people don't do a good job preparing their wool because there isn't a buyer or market in some areas," he says.
Chambliss says the Merinos will consistently return $30 a head for their wool, which he figures is equivalent to roughly a third of his costs each year. "Coarser wools aren't worth as much, but they can still return $8-$10 a head after shearing costs are taken out," he adds.
The first step in making more from wool is putting down some type of floor for the shearers to use. "When a sheep hits the shearing floor, the first thing a producer should do is throw a tarp down or some plywood," Chambliss explains. "Don't use a blue poly tarp or a brown tarp, because poly will contaminate the wool," he says. "I use an old tarp off a grain semi. A concrete floor works well, too, but make sure and sweep it off before they start shearing," he notes. "Also, don't use a broom while they are shearing. It will contaminate the wool with poly."
Poly and twine can not be sorted from wool, Chambliss explains. As it goes through the mill, those fibers will go right into the garments. Poly and twine from hay bales or straw can easily become entwined in the wool. "I once saw a Pendleton blanket on a shelf for $800, and it had a line of poly right through the middle of it. That makes an $800 blanket worth $10," he says.
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Hair from the legs or butt is the biggest contaminant in wool, and it can be hard to separate. It comes from the shearer cleaning up the feet and legs and around the rear end, Chambliss says. "The dirtiest part of the fleece is the belly. That needs to be separated from the rest of the fleece. The easiest way is to ask the shearer to take the belly wool off and throw it into a side sack," he explains. "It is always short and dirty, so it's worth less, but it does still have value."
Other wool that should be separated is that around the butt, because of the balls of feces and urine stains on the wool. The neck area, called the crow's nest, right above the shoulder blade up to the top of the neck also gets contaminated from hay and dirt. "By removing the neck wool, you can increase the yield on the rest of the wool because you removed the vegetable matter," he tells producers. "You are probably only removing a ¼ pound of wool, but you can basically add 10 cents a pound to each fleece by removing vegetable matter, belly wool, tags, urine pieces, hair, wool on the lower legs, face and cheek wool, and the armpit wool which is full of lanolin. Also remove any straw, cockle burrs or sand burrs from the fleece. Basically, remove any pieces that don't fit," he says. Sheep should not be bedded in straw prior to shearing. "Save that bale of straw until after they are sheared," he recommends.
Chambliss recommends setting up something the size of a card table to put the fleece on after the shearer finishes each sheep. "You basically have about four minutes to clean up that fleece before the shearer will have the next one ready," he says.
How the sheep are fed and managed can also impact the quality of the fleece. Density, which is how thick or tight the wool is, can be impacted by the amount of dirt in the fleece. "I would recommend keeping dust and blowing dirt down in the pens," he explains. "If you grind hay, don't do it near them, and try to find a way to feed besides using a bale feeder."
Producers should also set up a consistent schedule to shear their sheep. While most producers like to shear before lambing, not everyone does, Chambliss says. "What I would recommend is shearing them every 11 months, and keeping it on schedule," he explains.
For his own flock, Chambliss takes away water the night before shearing. He doesn't recommend feeding them the morning of shearing. "Some people won't agree with me, but I've found that holding back water prevents urine on the shearing floor. If you don't feed them that morning, it reduces the amount of feces on the floor," he explains. Chambliss uses a leaf rake, rather than a broom, to clean up after the sheep.