Sheep Manure in the Garden

At various times the subject of garden fertilization using sheep manure comes our way; naturally, we are great advocates of the practice! Using sheep manure has many advantages over other alternatives and a relative few disadvantages. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect of sheep manure is its compact and clean nature; it is easily the cleanest, least revolting “natural” manure available. Not only do sheep shed their nasty smelling sulfides in the production of wool, it comes in a clean utilitarian form, quick-drying compact pellets that are easy to dry, transport and utilize in the garden.

If that isn’t enough, sheep manure generally doesn’t need much aging or special preparation; it comes ready-made for application. Generally, sheep manure takes about a week or two to thoroughly dry in Arizona’s sunny and arid environment. Properly raised sheep, meaning largely pen fed with alfalfa as ours are, which have no exposure to other animals or toxic chemicals (fertilizers, tainted water or medications) do not even require drying, though we do in all cases dry our manure for two weeks because of the need to store large quantities and for shipping purposes. Manure will mold if it is not thoroughly dried, – if properly dried manure will store for many months, but great care needs to be taken to monitor inventory. Even a small introduction of “moist” manure can contaminate the driest manure, ruining an entire batch.

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Nicks and Cuts

While the topic of accidental injuries is often mentioned, very little seems to be offered on how to minimize the occurrence. First off I should say that the occasional nick or cut is almost unavoidable, though it is almost always the shearer’s fault and usually due to a lack of control of the animal, the machine or blade position. Often times other factors like exhaustion, frustration or dull blades can play a role. One needs to remember the animal is scared and often exhausted itself and losing your temper can only contribute to a greater likelihood of more nicks and cuts, so attention should be given to your state of mind and the animal’s behavior.

The areas most prone to a problem are areas where wrinkles and creases or folds occur, this includes the neck, the area under and around the elbow, the tail and the softer underbelly where the skin is thin and the nipples are (you want to keep the full comb flat against skin, not go up narrow folds). None of these are especially troublesome if everything is going well and the animal is calm and well controlled, but things the shearer do can contribute to problems, – pulling or twisting the skin creating a fold or crease will allow skin into the space between the comb’s teeth. Abrasions and nicks are common and utterly unavoidable, even on flat areas where you have good control and keeping the skin flat, but cuts and serious abrasions can be minimized if enough patience is exhibited.

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Blade Basics

Perhaps the one subject that I found most difficult to learn about was blade set-up and alignment. There is precious little out there on proper blade set-up and operation. Once you start out shearing you will learn just how important this is, – while it is inevitable that you will nick and cut sheep, a great deal of that inevitability rests upon proper blade set-up.

First set of pictures below shows the two elements of a blade:

The Comb:

 

The Cutter:

 

The second picture set shows the proper relationship they must maintain to safely shear an animal.

  

While it is true that the closer the cutter is to the bevel (brim where it slopes off) the better the machine will cut, it is equally true the risk to the animal greatly increases. At all times the cutter should remain approximately 2 mm or .07 inches (5/64) from the bevel edge.  Otherwise, not only the risk of cuts greater, they can be far more severe, especially in critical areas like nipples, narrow angles (tendons, folds, wrinkles) and tails.

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Sheep Shearing Machines

Once you have decided upon shearing your own sheep, the first important step is choosing what method you prefer. To a large degree this will come down to how many sheep you own or plan on raising. For a small number you might choose hand shears, which is popular with native shearers and some old-timers. We have never actually used this method though we have hired Navajo shearers that have and I can tell you that unless you have a strong back and a lot of endurance (young) this is probably not a practical option. Mostly this methods only advantage is it is inexpensive and doesn’t rely upon power.

The second method is probably the most commonly encountered, the electric handheld shearer like the Oster Variable Speed Showmaster. There are several other professional grade machines available which are suitable for small herds (our average is about 30 ewes and a few rams) and relatively inexpensive at about $400. The third method is a professional shearing machine which most professional shearers use, these cost twice as much but offer many advantages, but starting out it is probably best to stick with a handheld shearing machine like the Oster Showmaster.

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