SOMERSET, Ohio — Shearing sheep is no easy task, especially when you’re trying to do it in the fastest time possible.
You have to know how to position your feet, handle your clippers and the sheep, and be ready to move and flex your muscles.
But even at 69, lifelong sheep shearing veteran Bob Taylor is still shearing his share of Ohio sheep, and helping younger shearers learn what it takes.
Taylor, of Somerset, Ohio, began shearing for neighbors when he was only 13.
“Dad always said if I’m big enough, tall enough, (and) old enough (to) hold a sheep, I could shear it,” he said. “When I was 13, I thought that I was good enough to satisfy the neighbors and they were happy.”
A tall and slender man, Taylor has raised, cared for and sheared sheep all his life. He doesn’t remember how many, exactly, but he and his son, Justin are sure they’ve topped a million. And he’s helped teach at least three generations of shearers how it’s done.
He grew up on a sheep and poultry farm south of Grove City, Ohio, where his family kept about 120 commercial ewes and purebreds. He bottle fed young lambs as a kid, and raised sheep for 4-H and FFA, later finding his biggest passion to be shearing and wool judging.
He continued shearing after high school, joining the Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative, and running a shearing crew. Today, he figures he’s been shearing for 56 years and it still accounts for about one quarter of his annual income.
“I enjoy it, I love it,” he said. “I get paid for my exercise. I don’t have to go to the gym.”
He likes helping younger people shear quicker and more efficiently, and produce a better quality fleece. As he sees it, he teaches the fundamentals, and it’s up to each student to continue to practice and get better.
“I show the basic fundamentals of how to shear,” he said. “Then, when you go on, you teach yourself.”
The past few years, he’s been helping teach his son, Justin, 26, who is following in his footsteps.
Bob and Justin Taylor talked to Farm and Dairy at the 2011 Ohio State Fair sheep shearing contest, where Justin placed fifth.
“I’m very proud of him. To make the finals is an honor,” Bob said. With other states also participating, the contest represents some of the best shearers in the nation, he said.
One thing is for sure — learning to shear sheep takes time and practice. Different shearers hold different opinions about what it takes to learn the trade. Some say shearing 1,000 sheep in five years is the goal. But when you have a 50-plus year veteran for your teacher, the one-on-one model is hard to beat.
“I think you can do it faster on one to one, where you say hey, move that right food, move that left foot,” Bob Taylor said.
Justin and his dad still manage a small sheep farm called “BA-A-Ack 40,” and they also work together shearing sheep for 4-H and FFA, and commercial operations. Together they operate Taylor and Son Sheep Shearing Service.
Justin said he likes the added income and working with his dad. He said it’s made a big difference working with someone who knows the trade so well.
Bob also is well known in the state’s sheep association. In December, he was named the 2010 Friend of the Ohio Sheep Industry, a new award given to one person for his contributions to the Ohio sheep industry.
“He’s very willing to help anybody out with their shearing skills,” said Roger High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association.
Sheep shearing is becoming an older trade with each generation, and fewer people taking it up. But Taylor is determined to keep it going as long as there are young people interested.
“I think he (Taylor) has a genuine interest in the profession continuing and he teaches other people how to do it,” High said.
Some of Taylor’s honors include winning the Ohio State Fair sheep shearing contest in 1980, and placing high in the nationals. And his name is well known throughout the state and at the Ohio State Fair, where he served as superintendent of the shearing contest for 41 years.
He may have stepped down as superintendent, but he still attends, reaching his hands and pointing his fingers to show junior shearers better ways. The current superintendent, Gregg Fogle, said Taylor is dedicated to youth.
“He enjoys the science behind the sheep shearing and teaching others and he’s always willing to help people learn,” Fogle said. “He’s one of the older guys, but he’s not one who will step away from younger people.”
Fogle attended his first sheep shearing school held by Taylor in 1994. Today, Fogle is herdsman of beef and sheep facilities for Ohio State University. In addition to overseeing the state shearing contest, he also has a coordinating role in both the state breeding sheep show, and the market lamb show.
Fogle said it’s impressive how many sheep Taylor continues to shear. On a good day, Taylor shears 65-70 head, a little less than the 95-100 head he conquered in his youth, but still an impressive number.
A heat-related illness early this summer slowed Taylor down a little, but he hopes not for long.
“I’ve got to get back to shearing,” he said. ”I’ve got quite a few to get caught up on.”
He doesn’t see an end in sight. And he doesn’t plan on giving it up until “I can’t hold a sheep between my legs,” he said. “That could be tomorrow, that could be 10 years from now, who knows.”