Dancing to the song of the shears | TSLN.com

Dancing to the song of the shears

MSU photo by Kelly GorhamFreshly sheared sheep leave the shed at the Sieben Ranch during the ranch's spring shearing.
Kelly Gorham |

As gentle as a lamb looks and as idyllic as is the idea of shepherds and their flocks, the wool gathering side of the sheep business is a bit more vigorous than those images imply. That gentle little lamb grows to be somewhere between 100 and 200 pounds, and shearing wool from a 200-pound critter without nicking it or getting yourself kicked in the groin is a challenge even for experienced shearers.

No wonder the industry needs more shearers. But not everyone should apply.

The way Jim Moore describes it, a sheep shearer needs to be one-part compassion and three-parts gristle. Moore is MSU Extension’s regional sheep specialist, an instructor in the Montana Sheep Institute’s Wool Harvesting School and a spare-time shearer.

“I say it in the sheep shearing schools, but it’s true. If you don’t care about the people, the industry and the animal, you shouldn’t be a shearer,” says Moore, who has been shearing for some of the same ranches for 30 years now.

Moore says he has seen people at both ends of the age and physical spectrum try shearing: mature individuals who expect shearing to get them into shape, and teens who aren’t physically mature enough to control the sheep. Generally, neither one makes it through the shearing school held annually at MSU.

“You have to be strong enough to hold the sheep,” says Joy Jesson of Livingston, who took the shearing course and now does contract shearing. She says she is making connections and “getting fast enough that it is actually worth my while.”

“You have to have enough stamina to continue,” Jesson adds. “Once you learn your positions, it is a little easier, but it is still very physical.”

The shearing school Jesson attended is one of those offered through the Montana Sheep Institute, which is a cooperative effort of MSU Extension, the Montana Wool Growers Association and the Montana sheep industry. Rodney Kott, the institute’s director and MSU Extension sheep specialist, says there are a handful of shearing schools throughout the United States.

“A lot of schools just teach you to run a clipper and shear one or two sheep,” Kott said. “The Montana Sheep Institute schools evolved more to target solving the bigger problem in the industry, providing people who are available to shear sheep.”

In the 1930s, Montana sheep numbers peaked at about four million but then declined for many years. Now, with the increased use of flocks of sheep to graze noxious weeds, the Montana sheep inventory seems to have stabilized at roughly 265,000 sheep and lambs in 2008. Sheep have become an essential tool in minimizing the invasion of noxious weeds onto wildlands, where herbicidal spraying is financially or physically impractical or socially unacceptable.

The institute itself was developed partially in response to that need to graze weeds, but also to increase the competitiveness of Montana’s sheep industry, reduce lamb mortality and improve income through new wool and lamb marketing strategies. Commercial-scale flocks require sheep shearers, which led to the development of the shearing school at MSU. Held in March each year, the beginner shearing course includes wool handling and grading as well as shearing technique. The advanced course focuses more on helping students improve their technique and speed.

In Montana, shearing is done once a year, a month or so before the ewes lamb in late winter or early spring.

Shearers usually work in teams. The first step after arriving at the ranch is to set the stage, quite literally. The team puts plywood on the barn floor and sets up lights and electric power on stands to the side. They add a newly sharpened cutter to the shears then oil the shears and shearing motors.

The shearing floor vibrates with the rhythm of the work, electric shears providing a high-pitched sustaining tone, while the “baaaa” of sheep and “uuugh” of shearer are wind instruments and percussion combined.

Shearers dream about sheep and “the pattern,” as Reid Redden calls it. A doctoral candidate in ruminant nutrition at MSU, Redden says he shears for both income and therapy. His doctoral work at MSU keeps him at a desk much of the day. After being physically active most of his life, he craves the physicality of shearing.

“Shearing is my exercise,” Redden says. “I don’t like to run. I get to go shear and meet people, good community-minded people, and that’s good.”

The pattern is both the way shearers position themselves and the animals and the route they follow as they guide the shears over the sheep’s body. Usually the pattern or style is named for its geographic origin. For example, there is a Mexican style and a New Zealand style. Moore and fellow shearer and MSU Blaine County Extension Agent Mike Schuldt took time off in 2008 to go “down under” and train in New Zealand. They now teach that technique in the shearing schools.

Positioning and shearing the sheep seems to be a cross between swing dancing (one of Redden’s hobbies) and wrestling. On a January day at Gerry Dusenberry’s ranch southwest of Bozeman, the pattern called for hauling 200-pound Suffolk sheep from the chute onto the cutting floor and bracing the animal between the legs of the shearer, who then guides the gliding shears around the belly, hind quarter, sides and back of the sheep, then flips it over and works the head and neck and down the other side. The mature ewes don’t seem to mind, but the yearlings can struggle, which is tough on the bodies on both sides of the shears.

The sweat rolls down the heads of the shearers by the time the first ewe is done. Then another sheep is pulled into position. Shear two hours, bent and sweating, take a 15 minute break and go back to the work. With a 150 pound white-faced Columbia ewe, the work is demanding. When the subject is a 200-pound Suffolk ewe, it’s not only hard work, but hard work for which only a few have the strength and stamina.

A good experienced hand might shear 110-to-140 or so animals a day, perhaps one every three minutes. The world record in speed shearing was set in January, when one man sheared 963 sheep in eight hours – a hair less than 30 seconds to shear each critter. Although, the sheep in competitions are less than half the size of Dusenberry’s Suffolks.

Brent Roeder, who frequently works with Moore and is a research associate in MSU’s Animal and Range Sciences department, said most owners don’t care about speed.

“They want a good job,” Roeder said, “and they don’t want the sheep cut.”

Cuts do occur, but less as a shearer gains experience. For most shearers, the work is a second job, so most use their vacations and holidays to shear.

Shearers are paid by the head, but when shearers talk about improving their speed, it has little to do with the money they make. It is more about doing their fair share of the work and doing better on the next sheep than on the one just completed.

“You build on each others’ skill and energy,” Schuldt says. “If the others on the crew are working really hard, you want to work just as hard. If you have paced yourself right, you’ll be out of energy at five o’clock. You can look back at the barn and see the sheared sheep and what you have accomplished.”

this story is from montana state university’s spring issue of mountains & minds magazine. to see this and other stories from the magazine, go to http://www.montana.edu/mountainsandminds/

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