Down on the Farm

Before and after: wooly sheep on the left, shorn sheep on the right.

The rhythms of spring are arriving on the farm a little early this year, as daytime temps rose to the upper 50s just the other day. A neighbor has already seen redwing blackbirds, and the chickadees are starting to sing their spring song of “Hey Sweetie” from the tips of the birch twigs.

Springtime means so many things on the homestead, and one of those is shearing time for the sheep. While wild sheep naturally shed their winter coat as spring arrives — rubbing it off on trees, rocks and bushes for the birds to snatch up and line their nests — the domestication process selected for sheep that kept their coats. This meant that people had to clip it off the sheep in springtime, which means more work but also a guarantee that the yield of precious fiber wouldn’t be lost on trees and rocks and bushes and bird nests.

Shearing needs to be a well-timed event. Sheep sweat through their skin, and leaving the full wool coat on too long can trap that sweat and cause serious skin issues. Think of that poor ram in the news recently who ran away for seven years until it was finally caught and shorn! That poor fella was going to need serious veterinary care, even after shearing. But if you remove the wool too soon (say when we had those bitterly cold temps in February), then the sheep cannot stay warm enough and struggle with hypothermia. Just like so many aspects of farming, things have to be timed out just right.

On a typical year, we’d have the sheep corralled in the barn near the front gate, and Chris, our stalwart shearer, would set up his rig in the entrance. Amidst the whir of the shears, Kara would hand him the next sheep, guarding the gate against escapees, and I would stand ready to whisk away the fleece, laying them out in the garage for skirting later. As our flock has grown to 85 fluffballs, shearing has become a two-day affair, often yielding 800 pounds of raw wool that we then take to the mill in La Farge to be processed into yarn and roving for our shop and kits.

But, due to COVID, these last two shearings have not been in typical years, and we’ve had to adapt our process to help keep everyone safe while still meeting the needs of the flock. Today is shearing day for spring 2021, and Chris arrived early in his classic pickup, ready for a full day.

Kara had been working diligently in the barn for days getting ready, cleaning and organizing, fixing gates and moving sheep to different pens so it would be easy to bring them to the right place. Then, early in the morning, we were up making sure the animals were fed and happy, then corralled the first group of ewes in the catch pen behind the barn that Kara uses at milking times. Here, the sheep are close together and easy for Chris to catch and shear in series, and the sheep find comfort in a familiar space snuggled together.

Next to the pen, we have backed up one of our wooden trailers lined with a rim of stiff cardboard to extend the sides. With this arrangement, Chris can scoop up a fleece and toss it into the trailer without needing to climb in and out of the pen. We can then back the trailer into the garage and let it set a few days before skirting, making sure any potential virus goes without a host.

Chris and Kara wear masks and stand far apart as they discuss the setup and strategize. There are also sheep diseases we want to prevent, and as shearers travel from farm to farm, they can be a way that these diseases spread. Years before COVID, we had protocol for preventing any spread, and Chris knows the routine — even helping us pick out special shearing shoes and coveralls that fit him best that we keep on hand and bring out each year for the occasion. Kara has a bucket of sanitizing solution for scrubbing up the shears. Some might see this as excessive, but it’s part of what has kept our flock clean of sore mouth, foot rot and other dreadful, contagious sheep diseases — germs that, once they reach your farm, you can never get rid of them.

I am eager for the wool, as our stash of yarn and roving is being greatly depleted by the numerous Zoom-hosted fiber arts classes I’ve been teaching and project kits that have kept my new role in shipping and receiving hopping. And the sheep will be eager to shed that heavy coat of fleece that kept them warm all winter. While the process of shearing is not their favorite (sheep are very married to routine, and anything that is not routine is perceived as stressful), but when Chris whirs the shears across their backs, they make these funny little lip movement as if this is the best back scratch they’ve had in months. Most, upon release, immediately find a pole to rub against in ecstasy.

Important agricultural events like shearing day help remind us that the natural rhythms and cycles of the year continue while inviting us to find creative ways to adapt and keep each other and our animals safe in mutually respectful ways. Chris has been an avid advocate of mask wearing as well, knowing that it’s a simple but effective way to make a difference.

What signs of spring will visit you this week? See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or www.northstarhomestead.com.