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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.