By: Lynn Harlan
It’s shearing season in the Rocky Mountains, and ranchers are, for the most part, enjoying the dry weather to finish up this annual chore. There is still time left for spring storms to muster up some badly needed moisture, and many sheep left to shear. The weather man predicts April, “the cruelest month” from the T.S. Eliot poem, will do exactly that.
I didn’t grow up in the sheep business – I just had a rudimentary knowledge of sheep ranching and had no idea of their importance to the history of Wyoming. Yes, sheep roots run deep. With sheep come the yearly nuisance, shearing.
When to shear? When can you get a crew to come shear? When’s the next storm? These questions all come together at the same time. The spring storms of 1973 and 1984 were particularly harmful in this region for shorn/about to be shorn sheep. A saying in this country is, “You’re always just one or two blizzards away from green grass.” We still have a band of sheep to shear so we’ll see what we can do about moisture.
In the very early years of shearing at the Harlan Ranch, the crews were local men, but in my husband Bob’s early memories there were Mexican crews who came up out of Texas. One recollection Bob shares is he was sent up in the morning to milk the cow, and he was a little apprehensive about all these strange men who had arrived and slept in a big trailer. One of the Mexicans came over and told Bob he would milk the cow if he could have a glass of milk. He milked the cow, not Bob’s favorite thing anyway, went over to the trailer, and got a glass. He came back and enjoyed a warm glass of milk.
By the time I came along, there were crews of highly efficient New Zealand and Australian shearers who did a bang-up job. Our shearing contractor was a true gentleman named Dale Aagard, from Worland. He was an innovator in the shearing business in our region.
For a young man growing up in New Zealand or Australia, countries still admiring an agricultural lifestyle, shearing is a career choice, a prestigious job. It’s also a way to see the world. In America, shearing is a lost art becoming more popular with young folks as it affords them a way to make good money and enjoy a certain lifestyle.
I’ve visited with some young American shearers this season. Several of them have been able to move up with the hole left by COVID-19 and the pandemic. Many New Zealand and Australian shearers were not able to travel over to America to shear because of the restrictions placed upon them when they returned, if they could return home.
One of them is Shamus. Living in Minneapolis, with not a sniff of agricultural background, Shamus made it West with a couple of summer jobs, then a friend suggested he try shearing sheep.
Jumping into it cold turkey in Worland, a couple of winters ago with George Kerr as his mentor and boss, Shamus just celebrated shearing 200 sheep in a day. He hopes to make the world tour someday, following the shearing season into Europe, Australia, New Zealand and back to America.You can follow his exploits on “Famous Shamus Experience” on YouTube.
A local Kaycee boy, Matt, grew up with a few less obstacles. His dad, from New Zealand, married a Kaycee gal. His dad did a little shearing, but Matt really started after high school “rousing” with the local shearing contractor, Dave Foley.
Rousing, or wool handling, is the job alongside the shearing trailer where you gather the fleeces into the compactor, to make a bale of wool encased in a nylon bag. Matt started out shearing five head at the end of the day, then 10, then spent a year in Australia honing his craft.
Another local boy, James, grew up on the Meike ranch, east of Kaycee. He was introduced to plenty of sheep workings there but never dreamed he would end up a shearer. He went to college, worked in the oil patch for a couple of years, and was hanging around town when Dave asked if he wanted to come work a few days trimming the wool around the ewe’s face, or wool blinding. The Rambouillet breed of sheep is prone to heavy wool on the face, and it can sometimes limit the ewe’s eyesight. Armed with a handpiece, this was James’ first introduction to shearing. Working alongside Dave’s son, Jason, James was able to fine-tune his strokes, and now he and Matt are having several “300” days in a season.
There are ladies who are cracking out in the shearing world. I visited with Phoebe, from Oregon, who after eight months is shearing about 70 ewes a day. She got into shearing “just to see if she could do it,” and doubts it will be a life long career, but she’ll be able to shear her own sheep. I know several gals who started out wool handling, then got into shearing for the extra money. You have to be strong to handle a ewe in the shearing trailer, but you hold a sheep in a certain way to relax them, and they won’t fight. Girls, you got this!
I am proud to see these young Americans take on this trade. Heck, maybe sheep ranching does have a future! Sheep are getting to be known as “agriculturally sustainable,” they have the super power of turning forage into wool, and more folks are enjoying the taste of American lamb. They do need a haircut once a year, and every rancher breathes a sigh of relief when the last snowy white ewe is turned out on the growing green grass to build a coat for another winter. Hey, we can always hope! About the green grass, I mean.