Welcome to spring in Wisconsin, when thousands of sheep lose their winter coat in favor of a new, naked spring wardrobe. This week, I was lucky enough to “help” – and I do use the term “help” loosely – sheer 450 sheep at Hidden Springs Creamery, a dairy sheep farm near Westby.
Farmstead cheesemaker Brenda Jensen and her husband, Dean, are increasing their flock in an attempt to make award-winning sheep’s milk cheeses year-round (Brenda’s Ocooch Mountain, a six-month aged nutty tomme was recently named to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest’s top 16 cheeses, out of 1,702 entries). Typically, their sheep would have been shorn in early March, but because Wisconsin seems to have forgotten it’s spring, they held off shearing until warmer weather.
First of all, let me say shearing sheep is serious business. At Hidden Springs Creamery, a three-man contract crew arrived bright and early Monday morning to set up three electric shearing stations in the Jensen’s hay shed/sheep loafing barn.
Once the stations were set up, the men did pre-shearing exercises to limber up their backs. After all, shearing a sheep takes between two and five minutes, of which the shearer is bending at the waist the entire time.
Going in, I was a little afraid shearing sheep might be a bit traumatic for both me AND the sheep. I had visions of “ringing pigs” as a kid, holding squirming, squealing piglets while my dad pierced their noses (we pastured our pigs and having a ring in their nose kept them from rooting and escaping under fences. Despite my protests, my dad assured me it was worth 3 seconds of pain for the pig to be able to live its life outside instead of in a crate, and as an adult I now have to agree with him).
Turns out, I worried for nothing. Because once limbered up, the sheep shearers chose a sheep from the pen, herded it onto their wooden board, and very simply and matter-of-factly, turned the sheep onto its back.
Yes, you read that correctly. Sheep are lifted up and turned onto their back, so that all four of their feet are sticking up in the air. I knew sheep were stupid, but I didn’t realize they (thankfully) were stupid enough to allow this to happen without so much as squirming or even making noise. In fact, sheep look fairly bored during the entire process. Simply unbelievable. Here’s a look at shearing a sheep:
First, the sheep is turned onto its back and the shearer works on the belly. This wool is kept separately, as it’s not nearly as valuable as the overall fleece. The picture below is the typical look of a sheep during this process, as it lays there, listless. You have a feeling she’s thinking: “I wonder what’s for dinner?”
Next, the sheep is rolled onto its side, with its head between the shearer’s legs, and then sheared on both sides. The goal is to remove the entire fleece in one piece. David, the lead shearer, averaged just under 2 minutes a sheep. A good shearer prides himself in doing it under four. David is a master.
When finished, the sheep is unhanded and allowed to get up and walk away. Most, like this one, however, continue to just sit there until the shearer scoots it outside. Yes, these are pretty wild animals.
After the sheep is persuaded to actually leave the shearing board, the helpers pick up the fleece.
Then it’s off to the super huge sacks, where the helpers stuff the fleece. Like this:
And here it is in action – fleece is heavier than it looks:
Occasionally, sheep shearers change blades or adjust the setting on the shearing device, which looks like this:
And when shearers are done with one sheep, they do another. And another. Until they’re done.
So to recap, here’s a “before” picture:
And here’s an “after” shot:
You almost get the feeling this sheep is posing for the camera, don’t you?
Throughout the entire process, I kept thinking I had seen something like this before. And then I remembered: I have a cat who thinks it’s a sheep.
Many thanks to the expert sheep shearing crew and Brenda & Dean Jensen for letting me be part of 2013 sheep shearing at Hidden Springs Creamery!
All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2013