Sheep shearing school solves severe shortage

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WOOSTER, Ohio – With beads of sweat running down her forehead and dripping off the tip of her nose, Carrie Pickworth’s eyes narrowed and her face molded into a look of concentration.

She was paying to look like this.

She bent, arched her back, and with a flick of the wrist, added another voice to the chorus of livestock clippers buzzing around her.

Recalling the steps on a poster reviewed earlier, her arms went to work.

Pickworth, of LaGrange in Lorain County, was only one of 25 people – old and young alike – who participated in a sheep shearing school held recently by the Ohio State University at the ATI sheep facility in Wooster.

Hard to find. “It’s really hard to find someone to shear. I figured I might as well learn to do it myself,” Pickworth said.

Though she’s had sheep for years and had previously shorn her flock of 10 breeding ewes herself, she’d decided it was time to break old habits and learn the correct technique.

She wasn’t alone.

“In Ohio, it’s getting harder and harder to find [someone to shear],” said Roger High, an Ohio State sheep specialist.

In northeastern Ohio – an area with a large number of small flocks but no sizable ones – it’s especially difficult, he said.

“The big-timers will do the big flocks, but for that small flock owner, it’s tough,” he said.

From all over. The school brought in participants from northeastern Ohio as well as flock owners from counties in western and southern Ohio, and employees who help with educational programs at Lake FarmPark.

Carol Garner, who owns a flock of seven at home in Farmersville, near Dayton, traveled the distance because, like the others, she was frustrated with finding someone to shear.

“There are very few around, and they don’t do small flocks very well. Plus, it’s a headache waiting around for them to show up,” she said.

Developing skills. Instructor Bob Thomas, a professional shearer, aimed to help those sheep enthusiasts develop their own skills – even those who had never even touched a set of livestock clippers before.

Though he doesn’t shear full-time anymore, Thomas has shorn for profit for 44 years – since age 13 – in four states.

“It used to be very secretive, very hush-hush,” he said, noting that shearers were slow to help anyone just getting into the business.

These days, he gladly shares tips “only learned by experience,” he said, especially at schools and with young people.

Australian method. Early on, he sheared the best way he knew how, but figured there had to be an easier and better way, he said.

Soon after learning the Australian method of shearing, he doubled his daily quota.

The Australian method is “a handful of positions” the sheep is held in that constantly creates a curve in its spine, which helps control the animal.

Even the largest animals can be handled easily using the method, Thomas said, even by young people and petite women.

The method also emphasizes using the arms and legs instead of the back to hold and move the animal.

“Just keep the sheep in your legs at all times, relax, and just go,” Thomas said.

Throughout the two-day school, Thomas and High circulated through the pen and advised each person, sometimes showing them the correct technique.

For the $30 fee, participants learned the shearing method from Thomas and High, received a step-by-step poster outlining each move of the clippers, and two days of hands-on training.

Inexpensive training. In most areas of the state, shearers usually charge $3-$5 a head for their services, so the workshop’s cost can quickly pay for itself, High said.

“Plus many of the sheep shearers can make a little or a lot of extra money on the side if they are pretty good at it,” he said, noting this class was one of the most exceptional he’s seen.

Participants in the session also learned the proper way to dress for shearing, proper diet, equipment preparation and care and how to close wounds.

With many people hesitant to shear their own flocks because they’re scared to nick the sheep’s skin, Thomas had advice: “Get in there and cut them. You’re going to do it. They heal.”

Shearing tips:

Sheep shearing professional Bob Thomas offered the following tips for successful clipping:

* Bend at the waist and don’t twist your back.

“Your arm can take five times more punishment than your back will,” said Thomas.

* Don’t use kerosene to clean clipper heads. Hot tap water will do the trick.

* Eat a light meal. Stay away from milkshakes, pop and beans.

Water and sports drinks are the best thirst quenchers, and cheese keeps you filled up, Thomas said.

* Wear pants made of durable fabrics; Thomas recommends duck fabric or Carhartt pants.

“Wool fibers are stronger than steel and will eat right through pants. Jeans don’t last long,” Thomas said.

* Always use sharp clippers. A dull clipper blade makes it easier to make mistakes.

(You can contact Andrea Myers at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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