A Little Preparation Makes a Successful Shearing Day

February 15, 2022
A Little Preparation Makes a Successful Shearing Day

A Little Preparation Makes a Successful Shearing Day

Written by Dana M Havas, CCE Cortland Ag Team Leader

From "Preparing for Shearing Day" webinar with Alex Moser and Robin Nistock

This winter's sheep-shearing season is upon us. To assist shepherds and shearers in preparing for the shearing day, Cornell Cooperative Extension's Livestock Program Work team hosted "Preparing for Shearing" on February 1st. During the 1 ½ hour webinar, participants heard from shearer Alex Moser and shepherd Robin Nistock.

You can watch the video here http://bit.ly/CCESheepShear

Shearing since he was 13, Alex operates a shearing crew in NW Iowa and has shorn all over the world. He has represented the United States in the World Shearing Championships in New Zealand, Ireland, France, and in the upcoming competition in Scotland. Robin and Andy Nistock of Steuben County, NY, have raised sheep for over 30 years, focusing on high-quality fiber for the artisan market.

The key to making shearing day efficient and successful is communication. It all starts well ahead of that day as you plan your year and think about the next shearing season. When you call up your shearer and get on their schedule take a moment to talk about what they need, what they expect, and what they plan on bringing with them. Many shearers also offer additional services such as trimming hooves and administering vaccinations. When scheduling your shearing, you may also want to discuss these additional options and how they might fit into the day.

As the shearing day approaches, you may want to reach out to your shearer again, perhaps due to the weather, or to alert them to some change in your plans (i.e., a sick sheep you're unsure of how to manage). Communicating with your shearer, and keeping that line of communication open, will alleviate unforeseen challenges that may otherwise appear.

Shearing day is every day for the shearer, so ideally, it will be enjoyable. For shearing day to be enjoyable - as well as safe, efficient, and successful - it takes preparation. Outside of the weather, the shepherd's shearing system is primarily coordinated. In preparing your system for the shearing day, there are three main components to consider: the sheep, the infrastructure, and the wool (you'll also want to consider the humans involved, but we'll get to that later). It's worth remembering that shearing is demanding on the body and can be dangerous if the appropriate conditions are not set. When a shepherd is sufficiently prepared, it eases the physical demand of the shearer and significantly decreases the chance of injury (to the shearer and the sheep).

Preparing the Sheep

For the comfort of the sheep and the shearer, it is important that the sheep are 'emptied out,' dry, and in good condition for the sheep to be shorn.
Emptying out a sheep requires that the sheep not be watered or fed for at least 12 hours before shearing (if on grass, remove them from pasture at least 24 hours before shearing). This empties the rumen - to some degree - making it easier for the animal to breathe when in the shearing position and for the shearer to manage the sheep. This may make some shepherds nervous, especially with pregnant ewes (considering ketosis). Proper feed management can help reduce this concern.

For example, consider ewes fed once-a-day: The shepherd could feed them the day before and then again immediately following shearing the next day. For ewes fed twice-a-day: feed them the night before, maybe cut back a little bit on the hay so that they have it cleaned up by 9 p.m., and then feed them again right after shearing. In either case, they won't miss any feeding. It is worth remembering that sheep will digest food in their rumen for up to 40 hours so, they are still getting nutrition even if they are not eating for 12 hours.

The sheep need to be dry for shearing. This is especially important for shearer safety and wool quality. Imagine the shearing set-up: the plywood boards, the shearer's moccasins, the sheep resting between the precisely placed legs of the shearer, the cutting blades moving smoothly, shearing the beautiful wool away from the sheep. Then imagine incorporating into that mix a wet sheep. Worst-case scenario, the shearer slips, and the previously well-controlled motion of the cutting blades meet skin - the sheep's, the shearer's, or both. Now consider the wool - what better place is there to store wet wool than on a sheep. Once off, the sheep wool needs to be stored until it can get to its next destination. Storing wet wool is a recipe for wooly-disaster inviting mold and mildew, resulting in this precious commodity simply becoming garbage. If your sheep are wet, or you expect inclement weather. You don't have sufficient cover for your sheep to keep dry, call your shearer immediately and see if he or she can do anything with their schedule to accommodate another day.

What condition are the sheep in? If you're planning on shearing pregnant ewes, you should schedule shearing 4-6 weeks before lambing. If you need to wait until post lambing, do not shear immediately after lambing, this is dangerous for the small lambs, and ewes tend to shear pretty poorly right after the stress of lambing.

What is the weather like? If it is supposed to be -20F and you don't have a location or numbers for sheep to huddle and share body heat plan instead shearing at a time when the temperatures are more appropriate. (What do you do if you have a few pregnant ewes, no good huddling location, and it is February in the NE. One option is to trim (crutch) around the teats so that lambs will still latch on and the mother can wear her wool coat in the cold months of winter).

For many shepherds, the shearer is the one other person who interacts intimately with their flock regularly. This level of intimacy is valuable and an excellent opportunity to get an informed perspective into your flock. Ask the shearer how your sheep are looking and carefully listen to their response.

Preparing the Infrastructure
Each shearer will bring equipment with them to the job - but what precisely that equipment is (besides the cutters) can change from shearer to shearer. Again, communication is the key: When scheduling the appointment, ask your shearer what they will bring and what they expect you to have on hand for the set-up (infrastructure).

The shepherd should expect to supply electricity that is close & available and with a sturdy place for the shearer to suspend, or fix, their shearing head to. If you, the shepherd, do not have electricity near where the shearing will occur, talk with your shearer - perhaps they can bring a generator or, you'll need to figure out somehow how to get electricity to that location.

A level place to shear, with two 4'x8' sheets of OSB or plywood for the shearer to shear on, is essential for a shearer to do their job efficiently and safely. One of the hardest things on a shearer's body is shearing on an unlevel surface, not to mention an increased chance of slipping and falling. Some shearers will bring their own boards, but the shepherd may want to consider supplying their own due to biosecurity reasons. Either way, these expectations should be communicated and discussed.

Before the shearer's arrival, a plan and a system for the holding and movement of the sheep should be in place. This includes how to move the sheep from the holding area to the shearer to wherever they go next. This movement should flow; the sheep should come in one way and out another.

Following are some additional items to consider at the shearing location:

- Is it well lit? - Provide the shearer with enough light to see what they are doing and provide the person collecting the fleece and the person sweeping with enough light to see that they "got everything".
- Is it out of direct drafts? - Shearers work hard and sweat a lot; a direct draft can be an unpleasant experience and risk the shearer's health and safety.
- Do you need help? - There are many jobs on the shearing day besides shearing. You may want to enlist friends and family to help wrangling sheep, picking fleeces, etc. (we'll get into this more later)
- Do you have the appropriate equipment and tools for wool management? - Wool management comes in many shapes and sizes depending on your operation and what you plan on doing with the wool after shearing. Regardless, you will need a plan to move the wool from the shearing floor, and this will often require additional items such as bags, cards, and sharpies for labeling and a broom. Being prepared for wool management ahead of time can significantly decrease the potential for chaos.

Preparing for Wool Management
"Shearing considerations encompass a whole year, and it takes a whole year to grow a fleece and a whole year of management to maintain a good, healthy, strong fleece that is going to be desirable." - Robin Nistock, Shepherd at Nistock Farm Steuben Co., NY

As Robin pointed out in her presentation, there is "no such thing as bad wool, there are so many different types of wool, and it is important that the shepherd: know and understand what their wool is best for and plan ahead for what they're going to do with the wool." This is equally as important when it comes to shearing.

Wool quality is important regardless of what you, the shepherd, intend to do with the wool and requires consideration throughout the year. Clean pasture, nutrition, and even the feeder style all contribute to wool quality. A clean pasture means no burrs, no thistles, and keeping weeds from going to seed; marginal nutrition will result in weak fleece and; a well-designed feeder will help keep the chaff off of the sheep and therefore result in a cleaner fleece. If you are selling to the artisan market, you may also want to consider coating your sheep to ensure an extra layer of cleanliness.

As mentioned earlier, wool management depends on what you plan to do with the wool after shearing. Having a plan and all the necessary components to implement that plan is essential. One practice that is typically performed to make shearing smooth, maintain the quality of the clip, and manage the health of the flock is arranging the order of sheep into groups. The American Sheep Industry recommends that the shepherd "sort different wool types before shearing to reduce cross-contamination. The preferred shearing order is a white face, crossbreds, black face and, lastly, hair sheep or hair sheep crosses." Lambs, if their going to be shorn at the same time as older sheep, should be shorn first due to their low immunity, and in the same vein, sickly sheep should be shorn last.

Shearing is a demanding task. Having a few extra hands 'on deck,' food and drink at hand, and being ready to pay the shearer when the job is complete can help make the day smooth and enjoyable.

Following is a typical movement of sheep and wool during shearing from the shepherd's perspective. In this description, one can easily imagine the various places an extra hand or two would be helpful:

1. The sheep are corralled
2. Catch a sheep (and take the coat off if relevant)
3. Get the sheep to the board for the shearer (shearer does their thing)
4. Get the sheep to wherever they go next
5. Scoop up the fleece and bag it (or bring it to the skirting table)
6. Sweep the shearing boards
7. Repeat from #2

Regardless of who is on hand, the shepherd must have plenty of food and drink to keep the team up to the task. It is not uncommon for the shepherd to have a nice meal prepared for the shearing crew once the shearing is complete. At the very least, the shepherd should plan on having snacks and water readily available and make time for snack breaks so everyone stays well hydrated and can keep their energy up.

Shearing is skilled work, and the shearer should be paid accordingly for their labor. When the job is complete, the shepherd should ask what the cost is for that day and be prepared to pay. While you, the shepherd, may want to know what it will cost ahead of time, you must bear in mind that many variables can affect the price, and many of those variables are only known once shearing is taking place. For instance, were the animals in the right condition or thin with lice, are they 140 lb. ewes or 300 lb. ewes, how many years of wool are on the sheep. etc..… All these factors, and more, can play a role in the price paid for the service.

With a bit of preparation and forethought, the shearing day can be a fun day, a day to look forward to. This is the harvest that the shepherd has been working all year to realize. With the help of a skilled shearer and by helping an experienced shearer be successful by considering sheep, infrastructure, and wool, the harvest can be beautiful, bountiful, and safe.

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