Monday, October 27, 2008

Shearing 101 - shearing on a stand...

Standard Disclaimer Applies. I am not a professional shearer, nor do I play one on TV. This is the method that I use on my own sheep, with good success. If it works for you, great, if not there are plenty of other methods and folks available to help get you going... Back in the day, I taught Electronics Theory and Repair. I had a student ask me what was the best method for learning. I told him that the best method is the one that worked for him. The same thing applies to you. Find whoever you can learn from and stick with them.
I always watch in amazement the agile folks who bend and twist their sheep and have each one done in 4 minutes or less... Ah to be that young again... Heck, I'd be happy if I could still breathe when I am bent over 90 degrees :) When we first got interested in shearing our own animals, I went out and bought some equipment, some right, some wrong and some I didn't know how to use correctly. Still, we managed to mostly get our own sheep done. We both decided early on that a stand was the method of choice for us, me using shears or clippers and Franna using a good old pair of Fiskars. I will have a future entry on the equipment that a well-heeled shearing shepherd might need. The last few years the Shepherd's Extravaganza at the Puyallup Spring Fair has offered classes on shearing on a stand. I have taken that class three times. The first year I took that class it was taught by Suzie Wilson and the last two years I took it from Eileen Hordyk. I took some of what I learned from both of them, added a dash of what worked on my own and came up with what I use here. I discovered that using this type of method causes much less stress on our sheep, and is much easier on ole Ace as well... I will assume a few things here. First that you have a stand, second that you have a sheep needing shearing, and third that you can get said sheep up on the stand and secured to the headpiece. The next thing that I will assume is that you have an electric shear ( or clippers), and know how to set them up properly. Otherwise, you will need to wait for Shearing 102 - equipment and setting it up correctly :) So, let's assume that you have met all of the above conditions, you should end up with something similar to the photo on the left. Now is probably the best time to pre-pick all the straw, hay, VM and other "stuff" off of your sheep. Trust me, I am married to a spinner, the cleaner the fleece is now, the less time that will be needed on skirting it later. So now, the pre-skirting is done and the wife is safely off to the side, it is time to make the first cut. So figure out which side you are going to start on and get your equipment set up and ready to go. Make SURE that you have enough cord available, and place it so you are less likely to stand on it while you are working. I am on my second set of shears as I stood on the cord one day, pulled it out of my hand when I moved and watched it fall on the tips of the comb on the concrete pad we were working on. The cutter popped loose and bound up everything, which promptly stripped off the teeth on the internal gears. All before I could just reach down and pick it up... It makes absolutely no difference at all since both sides need to be done. I am left handed, so I start on the right side, except when I forget and start on the left. See??? Like I said, it just doesn't matter :) The first cut is to start at the shoulder, open up the fleece so you can get your shears in down to the skin and then cut DOWN the body so that you exit the wool right at the front leg. This is going to separate the body wool from the chest wool and allow you to get it off in pieces easier. If you cannot visualize this yet, hang in there, I'll try and make it clearer. Photo 2 is of our Gotland/Finn ram, Captain, after I made the first cut, I opened it up so you can see what I did... Unfortunately, the photo does not show that the cut comes out right at the leg, but you should be able to visualize where his leg is... PLEASE take your time when you make this cut and try very hard to keep the shear blade even with the skin all the way down. If it rides up, you won't get the wool all the way to the skin, or if it rides down, it may pinch and / or cut your sheep. That is not a good thing, and it tends to make them less comfortable on the stand while you are working on them. Alright, time for the next cut. This cut will be a front to back cut on the top, just to the side of the backbone. Start in the area where you made your down cut. That way you can get the shear positioned properly and not have to fight through the wool to get down to the skin, you should already be there from your opening. Again, since this is the first cut in this direction, you may need to make it in two or three tries so you can stop and open up the wool as you go back. As you can see in photo 3, I stopped about two thirds of the way back so I could open it up some more. I finished up by going on down the back, over the hip and to the rump. The other thing to remember when you are cutting in this direction is to pull the skin taut with your free hand. In addition to making it easier to shear all the way in one stroke, it also is a way to prevent pinching or cutting your sheep when the loose skin gets caught in the shear. Okay, so far, so good. We have made our first two cuts and now things get easy for this side. It is simply a matter of making cut after cut going lower on the body with each pass... Oh, wait, it may not be that simple yet. After VM, what is the next most hated things in a fleece to a spinner??? Hmmm, second cuts you say??? That is correct !!! So, for those who do not know, what ARE second cuts??? Well, second cuts (or just called seconds) are little bits of wool that are too short to spin and can be a pain in the rear to skirt out of a fleece. If you are selling fleeces to spinners, seconds will also reduce the value of those fleeces that they are in. So, certainly they are something that we want to avoid as much as possible. Seconds are caused be shearing over the same area more than once. But you say, if we got all the way down to the skin, didn't we get all the wool off already??? Well, yes, in a perfect world, that would be true, but we have a little geometrical problem here that we are going to have to deal with. If you look you will see that the comb on our shear is flat, but the side of our sheep is round. Visualize the rocker on a rocking chair sitting on a flat floor. If we hold the center of the comb (rocking chair at rest) against the skin while we make our cut, the outside edges of the comb will not be in full contact with the skin and so there will be a little bit of extra wool left at those edges when we make our pass. Still, that is not when the problem occurs. Rather, it occurs when we make our NEXT pass as the shear may be in such a position that it may clip a little bit of that left over wool from our previous pass... Pressing the shear more firmly on the sheep is not the answer as it may actually cut the sheep if the skin gets pinched in due to the center of the shear being pushed down so hard. There is a little trick that we can use to eliminate all or most of our second cuts (the trade off is that it will take twice as many passes to shear the sheep, and wear out combs and cutters faster) As you can see in the photo to the right, what we are going to do is use only the bottom half of the shear when we make our pass (rocking chair all the way back). By having the bottom edge of the shear blade firm against the skin and using only the bottom half of the shear, we can eliminate about 99 percent of the second cuts. Other than that, it is the same as I have already mentioned. Pull the skin taut with your spare hand as you make your pass and keep the shear in contact with the skin. If for whatever reason, you do leave a rise during a pass, do NOT go back over it to get rid of it right now, we will clean those all up later. Eventually, you will get down the body to the legs and the belly. Where you stop is up to you. For our Gotlands, we go a little further down as the belly wool is pretty nice, but if it was one of our britchier Shetlands, I may not go quite so low... Photo 5 shows Captain with the entire side basically done. I think that I actually made another pass or two on him down low as he has very little britch. One thing that I wanted to point out here, is notice where the good fleece is... Right now it is still hanging right next to the sheep. What would happen if we went back anytime during this and cleaned up any rises or missed spots??? Ummm, how about that they would fall right down onto the good fleece. (Insert vision of dollar bills flying away here...) That is why I suggested that you wait and clean them up later. Anyway, once you are satisfied that you have all of the fleece that you want to save from the side, remove all of it and place it wherever you are going to put it. We usually set up the skirting table right next to where we are shearing so that Franna or I can take the pieces and lay them out and then continue on with the shearing. The next thing is to repeat the entire process for the other side. I am not going to go over it again, but if you need a refresher, just scroll up and look at the photos again. After both sides are done, I do the chest and front of the neck. Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of that process, but I will talk you through it. Basically what I do is start down at the front leg and shear UP towards the neck. I use the half shear process as described above (rocking chair back). (NOTE - Do not worry about the back of the neck right now, we will get to that in a minute.) When you get to the front of the chest, go ahead and switch sides, start at the leg again and go until you meet the area that you have already done. Please do NOT shear up high enough to cut into the chain on the head piece. That causes severe damage to the combs and cutters. Ask me how I know :( Also, do not cut into your halters. We discovered that the shear will pretty much destroy the strap on a halter. So anyway, go up as high as you are comfortable without cutting into anything or destroying your gear. And be VERY careful that you do not cut ears or poke eyes on your sheep. They will NOT appreciate that... Once you get the front chest and neck wool off, if you have a helper, have them remove the sheep from the headpiece and hold the head down so that the back of the neck is straight with the topline that we followed down the body. Now you can shear up the back of the neck and clean up any areas that you were unable to do when the halter and headpiece were in use. Caution here - do NOT cut the fingers of your helper... If no one will help you with this, it is MUCH harder to do, especially if you have squirelly sheep such as Shetlands :) Safely remove all the pieces of fleece that you are going to keep and put your sheep back on the halter and / or in the headpiece before we go on. Please note that in addition to not going over rises or misses again, I also did not clean up the belly, or the legs or the rump or anywhere until the good fleece is all off and safely on the skirting table. Okay, now that the good stuff is gone, we can go back and clean up whatever is left over... There is not a real method here, just safety, mostly of the sheep... I usually start with the rear end, then the legs and finally the belly, being VERY careful not to cut any boy or girl parts. I usually put my hand over, or hold whatever I am close to with my own hand. If that makes you queasy or you are worried about cleanliness or anything, wear a glove. I find that I am a LOT less likely to get really carried away when I am shearing in those areas if my hand is in the danger zone as well. Still, I have managed to cut myself a time or two (it REALLY hurts if you get nicked between two fingers, OUCH !)... Also, my own observation is that belly wool is different than the other wool and I usually have to dial in another eighth or quarter turn on my cutter tension to get a clean cut instead of pulling. A real easy way to tell if you are cutting clean is to look through the comb to the bottom of your cutter blade. The cutter has a hollowed out area, and if there is no wool or anything in the hollow, you are cutting nice and clean. However, if the hollow is full, especially if it is the same color as the sheep you are shearing, you are not cutting clean as the hollow usually fills up with wool that is PULLED, not sheared... Ouch... Once you get your sheep all finished up, now is a GREAT time to give any oral meds or shots since you don't have to catch them again. Oh, and don't forget about trimming hooves as well. Not a better chance :) I guess that maybe I am not as envious of the 4 minute shearers as I used to be... Using this method, I can do a sheep in ten to fifteen minutes with a helper, or about 30 minutes by myself, save wear and tear on me, have happy sheep and a happy wife who does not have a lot of seconds to skirt out of the fleeces :)



Michelle at Boulderneigh said...

Very helpful, Ace! But I WILL have to wait for Shearing 102, as I don't have the right cutting tools.

John said...

Thank you:
using a stand will sure help keep my back from hurting. I have been using hand shears and it is a rather long process to shear even 1. Am getting faster though and the addition of a stand will sure help. thank you for taking the time to provide the information it will be very useful. My Ewe #1 is especially greatfull as it is still up in the air as to who bled the most the shearer or the sheared when I sheared my first sheep :) PS #1 is due to lamb any day