Every spring brings with it the most important (and often dreaded) task a sheep-reeve (shepherd) faces, the sheering and the harvesting of wool. Nothing in sheep rearing is more important than understanding and practicing shearing; it is the cornerstone to any profitable sheep ranch. The task of shearing can be a little intimidating at first, it is a physically demanding and often an exhausting activity and there are some unpleasant aspects to the process, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives once you become accustomed to the process.
Twelve years ago when we selected sheep rearing as an occupation, we decided that we would put off learning this most important skill. Some of this was because we were totally unfamiliar with the process, but also it was because we could afford to put off the ritual for a time. For the first few years, we would hire professional sheep shearers; this was neither a bad idea, nor terribly expensive, but it did delay the inevitable. Hiring a professional shearer the first time out is probably a good idea, doing so will give you a good introduction to the process, plus it allows you to experience some of the downsides first hand and realize there are just some things that are unavoidable, – for instance once you start shearing yourself you will find that it is nearly inevitable that you will nick or cut animals. This can be a little disconcerting at first, but no matter how you try to be careful cuts will occur, especially if the animal is not controlled well (inevitable at first) or the animal resists and jerks (also inevitable); seeing a professional experience this repetitively in the course of the day can reassure you that this is common and generally unavoidable.
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Integral to the profitability of sheep raising is breeding and selling off of unproductive animals, this is even more critical when dealing with rams and males, – simply put they consume more than they could ever bring in and they are by their nature aggressive and counterproductive to a peaceful flock.
We find this practice the most disagreeable aspect of raising sheep, the unpleasant and often ugly business of selling of animals that you have raised. The uglier truth to this practice is that unless it is done the rest of the flock will suffer or be unsustainable, that these less productive animals will cripple the ability to care for the more productive animals. This practice is not especially profitable in itself, young male lambs rarely can be sold for more than $150 and adult males or rams long surpass their “profit-cost” point before you sell them (the calculation of feed consumed versus sale price); the earlier you do it the better, though any calculation will show that you will usually lose money.
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Making friends with your sheep is very important. When they trust you it is easier to work with them, such as when you have to catch them for shearing, medication, etc.
Sheep are incredibly skittish creatures, it can be very difficult to earn their trust enough for them to be at ease with you. However, we have found a number of ways to develop a relationship where a measure of familiarity and trust can be had; though in some cases no such bond is possible. Some individual sheep have a well-developed fear and suspicion of everything you do and little can be done to change this condition.
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The profitability of sheep is a difficult thing to measure accurately; there are many factors involved, however here we will provide our experience with raising a small herd of 30-40 animals.
To say there is a learning curve raising animals is an enormous understatement, what seems common sense today was beyond our comprehension a decade or more ago. Simple necessities like sheering seemed like a task you could put off on a professional once a year, however, to do so adds hundreds of dollars of expenses to your bottom line. Further, the personal handling of the animals is lost if you shed that task to another, a man who is little more than a machine to the process. We do not engage in reckless shearing of animals, we do not strive to finish the task in 3 minutes, or even 10 minutes, we often take 20 to 30 minutes to shear one animal, preferring to cause less harm (nicks and small cuts which are common with hasty careless work) to the animal.
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