In Kansas’ Flint Hills, there’s not much to be harvested in April and May, but it’s a prime time to shear our sheep and harvest their wool. Sometimes the spinning process requires wool fibers that are less than a full year’s growth, so many of our sheep were shorn last November and are being shorn in the Spring.
However long the fibers, though, they always seem happier to have their Winter coats off. With them come all the stickers and burrs they picked up in the Winter’s grazing, which must be a relief. The lambs are puzzled by their mothers’ new appearance, but smell is an important link in the bond and whatever Mom may smell like, the lamb smells the same. So with a lot of bleating they all get sorted out and reunited.
And it may be that cold, wet Spring days stimulate the ewes’ appetites for the new grass so that the quality of milk improves.
The man who shears our sheep is a neighbor who owns many cattle, Angus and Hereford, and is shy of having it known that he can shear. Think of him, if you will, as VC; VC is not his name or anything like it. In April and May he is especially busy. His cattle have to go to grass, which means that fences need to be checked and the livestock treated for parasites and other matters of health – and he has to get his ground tilled and his crops planted. We don’t have a shed in which to keep the sheep dry before shearing, so we piece at the work, looking for a slot when VC has a couple of hours in hand and it’s been dry for at least a day. Last evening we did eight, for example, and another ten six days ago. We don’t want wool to go into the sack wet.
The quality of the wool, when it comes out of the sack, is affected by three things: the diet of the sheep, its health, and the way it was shorn. Diet is obvious, I suppose, because just as our hair and fingernails are affected by our protein intake, so does sound wool require good nutrition: hence the oats and alfalfa we feed. Illness involving fever can produce “tender” wool that will not stand up to the spinning process, weakening at the point of the fiber’s growth when the fever occurred.
What the shearer does can have a profound effect, too, caused by second cuts. It works this way: the terrain of any sheep is not totally smooth because there are creases and bumps caused by the sheep’s posture, not to mention its bones, and as the comb and cutter move across the hide their entry and exit points can shorten the cut fiber. The result is that there usually are places left on the sheep where the wool has not been fully removed.
What VC or any other shearer should do is ignore them. To go back for a second pass to clean it up so the sheep looks totally smooth is to create a short fiber, and short fibers among long fibers do not spin well. Ignoring unevenness is hard to do, especially for agricultural folk who spend their years creating various physical realities. It just wouldn’t do to leave bits of unharvested wheat in a field, or corn, or grass in the lawn around your house.
In the photographs, you will see that Mike is spectacularly smooth, but that is because he sat still for VC and didn’t struggle a bit. Maybe he set his mind to it. Ike didn’t do so well, but his fleece weighed 16.5 pounds compared to Mike’s 12.4. We’d tell them if they weren’t so busy grazing.