**** I am super excited today to bring you a blog post by Patricia Ford, the winner of our first ever The Shepherd and The Shearer Shearing School Scholarship! Thanks so everyone who participated in the 2013 The Shepherd and The Shearer Project. YOU made this happen for Patti! We will have details soon about The Shepherd & The Shearer 2014. -XOXOXOX, Susan****
Sheep Shearing is one of the oldest professions there are. It is a skill that does not involve any type of technology and it is a method that has not changed for many years. I’ve always dreamed of having my own flock of sheep and shearing them myself but for me this is not possible. I am a military spouse and our family moves around every few years. A couple of years ago, I decided to intern in sheep farms so that I could learn as much as I could about animal husbandry. I figured if I can’t have sheep of my own, might as well be around them when I get the opportunity. It was this desire that led me to attend the Washington State Sheep Shearing School in Moses Lake on April 7th thru the 11th. It was a five day class with the sixth day being an Advanced Tune-Up session for intermediate shearers to “sharpen” their skills.
I had been looking forward to taking this class for a long time and finally the day had come. On my way to the Grant County Fairgrounds, which is where the class was held, lots of questions crossed my mind for example, “How many women will be there?” “Will I be the only middle-aged woman attending?” “Will I be able to learn how to shear?” The first day of class we had a brief introduction between everyone there including 16 students, instructors and volunteers. The age range between shearing students was majority 30’s to 50’s and there were students from all over the Pacific Northwest, California and Alaska. Plenty of women were involved in the school including eight students, the school’s coordinator and a teaching volunteer.
On day one of instruction, each student received a binder loaded with information about sheep shearing, and everything there is to know about the sheep production industry including, handling and repairing equipment to wool packaging and care, animal health, physical conditioning, setting up a business and marketing plan and more. We were briefed on how the five day lasting class would go and then we went to the shearing trailer.
The shearing trailer is a mobile unit that has eight stations. It accommodates 16 students at two per station. There are four stations on each side allowing the instructor to observe everyone. The trailer unit is constructed of 2 inch square tubing and is bolted to a flatbed trailer. It has a fold up roof, sides that fold down and a tip up wall and chute. The sheep enter on the left rear and circle around the front to the right rear. When set up, the trailer forms a 20 x 32 foot building with a wrap-around chute, with drop doors for accessing sheep easily and effectively. The trailer is set up each year and put away the day after the shearing tune-up session.
We were assigned two students and an instructor per station and all of the shearing equipment was provided by the school. There is so much to learn in sheep shearing and at first it seems so complicated to coordinate holding the sheep in place and properly shearing in the least blows possible and avoiding second cuts. The main instructor, Mike McWilliams has been teaching this class since 1993.
I have to admit I was a little bit intimidated on day 1. It seemed a little but much to take in at one time. I was being instructed on what to do while hands on a sheep and shears. We learned the New Zealand sheep shearing method with a goal to sheer in 48 to 50 blows per sheep. We also learned about shearing equipment set up, shearing moccasins as well as throwing, skirting and rolling a fleece. The first day I sheared three sheep and I was proud.
Day 2 was the most difficult for me because my body was sore from using it in a way that I was not used to and I was a bit discouraged at not being able to properly sheer on my own yet but I sheared six sheep anyway and continued to give it a go. Besides shearing instruction, the focus of day 2 was: handling sheep without hurting and exciting, quality wool clipping, preventing wool contaminates, wool packaging and care and physical conditioning. We also learned how to trim hoofs.
By noon on day 3 I began to gain confidence in what I was doing and suddenly I understood what the instructors were saying. We learned how to do maintenance and repair to the hand piece as well as sharpening electrical blades and hand blades. This was a very “hands on” exercise as we all had the opportunity to sharpen the blades.
On day 4, I had gained my confidence and still with observation of an instructor was able to sheer by myself. On Thursday we learned why sheep should not be fed for at least 12 hours before shearing. We got a flock of sheep that made a mess in every station of the trailer. It was a bit icky but it gave us the opportunity to see for ourselves how there must be cooperation between shepherd and shearer. After lunch on Thursday we also learned how to properly sheer alpacas and llamas. Some students were able to shear these hairy creatures but I didn’t. Instead I opted to go back to the trailer and continue shearing ewes, withers and rams. There was no telling what kind of sheep we would get from the chute when we reached in for one.
On Thursday we had a Shearer Dinner Recognition sponsored by the Columbia Basin Sheep Producers. Dinner consisted of all you can eat lamb chops and leg of lamb, it was quite the feast. The invocation was given by WSSP Director Jerry Richardson.
Friday we had a demo on shearing with hand clippers. Being the last day of school for us, we sheared for half of the day. We had a review and questions and our shearing school ended with the handing out of certificates. A couple of the students received a Junior certificate of achievement meaning that they have the ability to sheer 10 sheep per hour, but the majority of us received a Learner certificate indicating that we completed one week class and can properly shear sheep.
On Saturday the Advanced Tune-Up Session was offered in the trailer. Beginners were invited to attend the advanced shearing instruction. I attended this session until noon and I am glad that I did for it was on this day that I sheared on my own from start to finish from grabbing the sheep from the chute and shearing by myself. I was proud to have sheared eight sheep including one ram and one wither, all in a time lapse of three hours. I don’t know how other schools are offered for only two days, for me the second day was the most difficult and I am glad I was able to shear for six days.
Thanks to the Washington State Sheep Shearing School I am now able to shear a sheep within a time frame of less than 20 minutes. I am certain that with time I will get better at shearing. My next step is purchase my equipment and network around the Monterey and Santa Cruz areas to shear small flocks. I’m not certain where my husband will be stationed next, East Coast or West but I am certain that wherever we go, I will be shearing sheep.
The school is sponsored by the Washington State Sheep Producers, the Washington State University Cooperative Extension and the Columbia Basin Sheep Producers Association. Further information about the shearing school is available on the WSU Grant-Adams Extension web site, http://animalag.wsu.edu