I love shearing day at Joanie and Dave Ellison’s sheep farm. There was a time when I dreamed about owning sheep, but I really just want to look at the sheep and let someone else do the work. Getting up every morning to feed the sheep in all weather conditions does not appeal to me. My ideal morning is getting up at 8:00 am, and then catching up on email, news and Facebook on my laptop for an hour in my pajamas, while drinking a hot mocha. Holding a newborn lamb is amazing, but I don’t know about checking on the ewes every few hours all night during lambing time. On a nice day I could sit for hours outside in a chair with my knitting watching the sheep. However, if the weather is nasty I would rather be inside watching out the window.
Participating in shearing day gives me a chance to be part of the process on a limited basis. It is exhilarating to be in the barn with the sounds and smells and movement. Two years ago I was all prepared to go, but there was a blizzard that day and it was not safe to drive to the Ellison’s farm 10 miles from us. Last year was still in the middle of the pandemic and I did not even inquire about helping. This year we got home from Arizona just in time. My sister and a friend with her young adult daughter came from Minneapolis to attend with me.
Some of the photos below were taken this April, others were taken a different year. They all show what it is like in the yard and barn during the shearing event.
Shearing is most commonly done in the spring before lambing. The Ellisons have usually done shearing near the end of January, which is determined by their ideal schedule for lambing. When the sheep are sheared in January or February, it is cold but the sheep are comfortable and will stay close to the barn, having their lambs there rather than out in the field. This year shearing was at the beginning of April, after the new lambs had already been born. The reason was related to covid rather than lambing. They wanted to hold off until it felt safe to invite a group of people over, and when they could have the doors to the barn open.
The only heat in the barn comes from the animals and a heat lamp over the shearing space. There is enough activity going on so that the temperature feels comfortable. One year it was minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit on the morning of shearing. This year it was around freezing at 8:00 am, but by midmorning there was a muddy mess outside the barn. I was grateful for my rubber boots which can be easily cleaned off.
On shearing day all 35 sheep are in the barn which is divided into areas by movable fencing sections. This year forty or more lambs were there too which added to the cuteness and noise level. The sheep waiting to be sheared are in one area. There is another section set up where the shearing takes place. The rest of the barn is open for helpers performing related support tasks. The process starts with making an opening in the fence so that four or five sheep from the waiting area can be moved into the shearing area. This can be chaotic with sheep getting spooked, running in circles and trying to get away or jump over the fence. Next Dave Ellison grabs a sheep inside the shearing area by the leg and flips it over on to its back, or this might take several people. The sheep’s coat is removed. Yes, the sheep wear coats to keep their fleece clean. Once on its back the sheep will normally be somewhat docile and allow helpers to trim its hooves and give it vaccinations with a needle. Another helper notes the ID for the sheep from a plastic ear tag. The ID gets written with sharpie marker on a large garbage bag which is used to store its fleece.
When the trimming and vaccinating is done, the shearer uses special electric clippers to quickly shave off all the fleece which falls in a big mound. At this point the “bagging” helper scoops up the fleece, trying to roll it up in a bundle, and stuffs it into the garbage bag with the correct ID for that sheep. The weight of the fleece is determined by hanging the bag on the hook of a scale suspended from the ceiling. The weight is written with sharpie marker on the bag next to the ID. Fleeces can vary in weight from around 2 to 6 pounds before any processing.
When one group of sheep have been sheared, they are very happy to be let out of the barn. The next group are not pleased to be herded into the shearing area.
Shearing one sheep takes only a few minutes, so the bags of fleece start to pile up while another group of helpers work on “skirting” the fleeces which takes longer. Skirting is removing the dirty or undesirable parts of the fleece that are not suitable for processing or using in a fiber project. The fleece to be skirted is dumped out of the bag on to a surface that looks like a giant cooling rack hanging from the ceiling. When skirting is complete the fleece gets rolled up, put back in the garbage bag and tossed into another area.
Shearing starts first thing in the morning. The time goes fast and by about 10:30 am it is time for a break of cookies and coffee while standing around in the barn. People who where bundled up upon arriving have shed layers and some are in shirtsleeves depending on the temperature outside. Trips to the house to warm up or to use the bathroom are allowed. After the mid morning break, work resumes in assembly line fashion until early afternoon when all the sheep have been sheared and fleeces skirted.
Other tasks for helpers include sweeping and picking up bits and sections of fleece from the shearing area and from under the skirting rack. All the reject pieces of fleece get saved and used for mulch. Another helper task is using a plastic sled to drag bags of fleece from the “complete” pile to a shed for storage until they are needed.
Lunch and social time follows in the house. Later, Joanie will check over the fleeces and do more skirting. Most of them are sent to a mill for processing into roving or yarn. Like fiber day, it is a fun time interacting with an eclectic and interesting group of people. Helpers are offered some fleece or roving in exchange for their labor. I have more than I can use already stuffed in my stash closet, so I did not take anything this time. Participating in shearing day is a wonderful experience. I think many city people would pay them to be a part of it!