The Sheep Have No Clothes

This happens every year…

The sheep have no clothes.

Because our annual Shearing Day just happened as our ewes (and us farmers) get ready for lambing time (coming in just a month!). Shearing Day is one of the top three or four biggest days of the year for our farm, next to the first day of lambing and the day our animals first get turned out on green pasture in the spring. So it’s kind of a big deal.

(But first, did you local folks see that our Meat CSA is now open? It starts up in March, and spots are limited.)

You might be wondering why we would shear in the middle of February, with spring a long way off in our state. Don’t the sheep get cold? It’s a great question (and we were asked this on social media just yesterday). The process and timing of sheep shearing is all about good animal husbandry something we care a lot about on our farm.

Shearing is actually essential for the health and well being of the sheep. If wool is not removed, a number of negative consequences arise:

  • Moisture can get trapped under the wool, causing bacteria to grow on the skin.
  • Wool grows year-round, so if it is not removed it becomes extremely heavy, which leads to decreased mobility and greater potential for injury.
  • Imagine wearing a winter coat in the middle of August. It’s not comfortable or healthy for humans OR sheep.

And one of the chief reasons we shear this time of year is to help our ewes better care for their lambs. When the dirty wool is removed from their hind ends (they live in fields and barns, after all), it also removes any excess bacteria hanging around, which decreases the likelihood of passing it onto their lambs at birthing time.

A momma ewe with exposed skin is also a better mother to her lambs because she is more sensitive to temperature and weather conditions, knowing when to take shelter and protect her lambs from the elements. If she’s covered with wool, she is insulated from the cold temps and less aware of the more delicate skin of her lambs who need added protection during these times.

And hats off to the creator of sheep who designed their skin to start growing thicker as soon as the wool comes off. It’s almost as if we were intended to be in partnership together. Interesting.

The hero of Shearing Day is our expert shearer, Timothy. The way he handles our sheep with gentleness and care is a testimony to his experience and attitude of care toward animals. It’s amazing to watch how he deftly maneuvers their bodies, takes particular care with the (very) pregnant ewes, how the sheep will (usually) lean back and relax into his frame, and how he can remove every fleece in under two minutes and in one whole piece. What a skill.

I recorded a short one-minute video of how the entire process works on our farm, along with a few other pics and shearing clips still to come, which you can check out on Facebook or Instagram. (Give us a follow while you’re there for more of this kind of stuff.)

After Shearing Day comes the next stage of work: processing the wool. In our era of factory-produced clothing, we’ve all sort of lost touch with how much labor is involved in converting natural resources (or not-so-natural resources, in the case of much of our cloth materials nowadays) into socks and sweaters, hats and gloves, and pillows and rugs and blankets.

Our particular breed of sheep American Tunis is a multipurpose breed, utilized for both meat and wool. Its meat is highly prized, and while its wool is not as popular as other wool-producing breeds like Merino and Corriedale, it does produce a beautiful, creamy white wool that can be used for almost any purpose.

Our farm is a registered member of the Livestock Conservancy, whose mission is to help save rare and endangered livestock breeds from extinction. The American Tunis breed was nearly wiped out during the Civil War, but thanks to recent conservation efforts it is now on the Watch List.

We’ve said it before and it’s worth saying again: diversity in the food and supply chain is good for everyone, but modern agricultural and consumer practices are creating a monocultural economic environment that is going to come around to bite us one of these days.

One of the ways the Livestock Conservancy helps create markets for these livestock breeds is through their Shave Em to Save Em program, a directory of sheep producers with wool products available on which our fleeces will soon be listed. If you’re a knitter, crocheter, crafter, weaver, spinner, fiber lover or just someone who wears clothes and sleeps in a bed it’s a great source of rare yarns, roving, fleeces, batting, felt, and ready to use wool products worth checking out.

But even programs like these are not enough to save the wool industry, which has suffered tremendously from mass factory production and the proliferation of synthetic fibers. The commercial wool market is currently only paying pennies per pound for wool ($.02/lb in 2020) which is not profitable or sustainable for sheep producers. That means that small farms like ours need to work hard to convert their own wool into usable fibers and put these products directly in the hands of consumers and creators.

Modern small farming demands a new breed of farmer who is knowledgeable in both traditional and emerging agricultural and marketing practices. That’s a wide skill set there’s a good reason small family farms are going out of business in droves.

When you buy real wool products (particularly from small producers), you’re supporting small family farms like ours, the conservation and diversification of livestock breeds, and a nearly decimated way of life in our country.

It’s a worthwhile cause to buy real wool.

Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve got more pics and videos coming on social media, so give us a follow if you haven’t already. One of the reasons we write posts like these is to share our first-hand farm experiences to educate and inspire others towards a more local and sustainable way of life.

This type of economy is going to be a vital source of life in the days ahead.

Monthly Meat CSA

Spots are now open in our monthly meat subscription. Sign up to reserve your spot and receive your first bundle starting in March. Whole and half shares available.

Lamb Available

This season’s  lamb cuts are now available in our online store. (Get access to our best cuts of lamb in our monthly meat CSA.)