Can you be your own sheep shearer?

Edith Kershner, a fourth-generation sheep shearer, demonstrates how to shear a sheep at the 2019 Farm & Homestead Day organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

Sheep shearing is among the most challenging of farm chores. It requires specific skills and special equipment. So it’s no surprise that most farmers hire professional shearers to complete this annual task. But can you be your own sheep shearer? 

Across the country, sheep shearing schools attract farmers eager to learn the trade. Some people are successful at learning the skill, and some are not.

“I think it depends on the person,” said Roger High, executive director for the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. “Some people come to [shearing] school and by the time they’ve sheared 10 or 15 sheep, they have it. And some may never get it.”

For many farmers, hiring a professional shearer is the best option, he said. But it’s not always so simple, especially for small farms. Because professional shearers are usually paid per sheep, many refuse to visit small flocks. Or if they do, it’s at a steep price.

“It’s a huge problem,” High said. “That’s why I’m picking up more of the small flocks, because they can’t get a professional sheep shearer to come.”

This is one reason farmers attend sheep shearing school, High said. If they master the skill, not only can they shear their own sheep, they could earn some extra income shearing their neighbor’s flock as well.

Edith Kershner, a fourth-generation sheep shearer, demonstrates how to shear a sheep at the 2019 Farm & Homestead Day organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

Why sheep are sheared

Sheep shearing — shaving the fleece from a sheep — is usually conducted in the spring so the animal doesn’t overheat in the summer. This also allows the sheep enough time to grow the fleece back before winter, when a thick coat will keep it warm. 

But there’s more to it than that.

Domestic sheep were selectively bred for thousands of years to create high quality wool, which is used to create clothing and other items. Certain breeds produce finer wool than others. In fact, some breeds are valued more for their milk or meat. But all breeds are usually sheared once a year, regardless of whether their wool is being sold. This is done for their health.

“Sheep don’t typically like to have this done,” said Edith Kershner, a fourth generation sheep shearer from Stockton Springs, Maine. “It’s kind of uncomfortable. It’s like going to the dentist. You kind of dread it. But they do need it done.”

Most domestic sheep grow wool continuously, according to a fact sheet by the North Dakota State University Extension Service. Shearing prevents a buildup of manure and urine in the coat, which can lead to parasitic infection. It also creates a cleaner environment for newborn lambs.

“These guys would get external parasites if I didn’t shear them,” said Kershner about her flock of East Friesians, which are considered dairy sheep. “They can get matted. They can get heat stroke. They can get fungus in under their wool, have a lot of skin irritation. So it is for their health benefit that I shear them.”

The art of shearing sheep

While there are different ways to shear a sheep, most professional sheep shearers in the United States handle sheep manually rather than use an apparatus to control them, such as a stanchion or stand. Simply handling the sheep using your hands and legs is more efficient, Kershner said, if done correctly.

“Learning to hold the sheep, to control your sheep, is probably 75-80 percent of the challenge,” she said.

Grasping the sheep’s fleece, Kershner tips the animal so its feet are in the air and its back is propped up against her legs. Then, with a handheld machine, she shears the fleece close to its skin, starting on the belly and ending with the back.

“It looks kind of random, but it’s not. It’s not at all random,” she said, explaining that the goal is to cut the fleece off in one big piece.

As she works, she turns the sheep and sometimes sandwiches the animal between her legs. This gains her better angles to move her shears, and it allows her to stretch out any wrinkles in the sheep’s skin, which would be easy to cut with the sharp blades. 

“Every shearer has cut something,” Kershner said. “It’s just a part of the game. You learn how to avoid it next time, and hopefully you don’t cut anything major.”

Any major cuts on the animal should be dealt with the same as you would yourself. Small knicks are usually left to heal on their own. Lanolin, a waxy substance secreted by sheep, shields their skin and supports healing

Juggling the sheep in this way requires strong back and leg muscles. It also requires an understanding of how sheep behave.

“Sheep aren’t cooperative,” Kershner said. “You have to hold the sheep in a certain position [for them to hold still], and if your foot is just ½ an inch off, the sheep will feel that and they’ll fight and get away.”

The biggest challenges of shearing

While teaching at the Ohio Sheep Shearing School, High has seen students succeed and go home to shear their own flocks. He’s also worked with students who have difficulty learning the skill and decide that they’d rather hire a professional to shear their sheep.

“The younger people that come to shearing school tend to learn the process faster, especially those in their early teens,” High said. “And it certainly depends on the size of the person, too.”

Being physically fit is crucial for sheep shearers. The task requires strong back and leg muscles, which usually need to be built up through practice.

Learning a shearing pattern and how to shave along the curves of the animal also takes practice. You won’t be perfect at it right off the bat, Kershner said.

“They say you have to shear 1,000 sheep to get good,” said Kershner. “It really is an artform. You have to have a balance of strength and skill and kind of a stubborn streak to stick in and do it without giving up.”

The expense of equipment

Sheep shearing requires special shears, which range in price from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars. 

“I’ve run into people who try to use horse clippers or dog clippers, and that won’t get through wool,” Kershner said. “That’s for hair.”

If she’s only shearing a few sheep, Kershner uses a Shearmaster clippers, which are corded and handheld, with the motor right in the handpiece. She estimates it cost her between $300 and $400, but it weighs between 6 and 7 pounds, which becomes heavy after a few sheep.

If shearing a larger flock, she switches to a different shearing machine, which features motor attached to a lightweight handpiece. This costs between $2,000 and $3,000, she said. And all shearing equipment needs to be maintained.

“You have to keep your combs and cutters sharpened,” High said. “It just pulls on the wool if they’re dull and it’s a miserable job.”

A sheep owned by Edith Kershner, fourth-generation sheep shearer, waits to be sheared at the 2019 Farm & Homestead Day organized by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. | Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki

Getting started with sheep shearing

Sheep shearing is a task that needs to be learned hands on, High said, whether that’s at a shearing school or as an apprentice. 

“It’s really important that we’re doing things right, not only for us, but for our animals,” he said.

“If you aren’t doing it right as a shearer, examples [of common injuries] would be back injuries, shears being kicked out of your hands and into your face, arms or legs. Those are sharp, dirty objects and they can cause deep cuts and infections.”

“On sheep, it’s the same thing,” he added. “They will kick and throw themselves around if you aren’t handling them properly, which could potentially cause deep cuts on the sheep, or broken bones.”

Another option for beginner shearers is to use a stanchion or stand, even though professional shearers don’t do this, Kershner said. This method of shearing will take longer and results in a less desirable product (usually fleece in several pieces), but it requires much less skill. 

However, keep in mind that some sheep may not respond well to a stand. They may thrash around and even hurt themselves. To avoid this, accustom your sheep to the stand early in life and provide treats, such as a grain, to reward them for being there. This practice is the same for people who milk goats and sheep on a stand. 

“It’s certainly an option if there’s a backyard farmer who can’t find a shearer or doesn’t want to pay a shearer,” Kershner said. 

Photo by Gabor Degre

The process of hiring a sheep shearer

If you decide shearing simply isn’t for you, then you’ll need to find someone who will shear your sheep at a reasonable price. The American Sheep Industry Association keeps an online shearer directory. You could also find someone by contacting your local sheep shearing school.

Once you hire a professional shearer, it’s important that you talk with them about expectations. In general, the farmer is responsible for herding the sheep and having them ready, in a confined space, when the shearer arrives.

Also, because sheep shearers often visit multiple farms in a day, it may be a good idea to talk to them about biosecurity practices. Harmful bacteria can be passed from one farm to another through manure and unwashed equipment, Kershner said. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to ask your shearer to clean their boots and shears before entering your farm. 

“For small farmers, that’s a big thing,” Kershner said. “You might not see it in your flock that year. A lot of diseases are chronic and you don’t see them right away.”

Also, keep in mind that sheep can be much more difficult to sheer if their fleece is matted or overgrown. Good nutrition and having your sheep sheared annually is key to keeping a sheep’s fleece in prime condition for shearing.

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