by Katie Navarra
Twelve months of work is measured in a matter of minutes. Shearing day reveals the overall health of the animal and defines the income that animal has produced in its fleece. A successful shearing day begins months in advance and is achieved with proper nutrition and grazing management practices.
A quality clipping begins well before shearing. In addition to the animal’s breeding nutrition, pasture management and parasite control significantly impact the quality of the fleece produced.
“Protein and energy are the two big things,” Aaron Gabriel with Cornell Cooperative Extension said, “the stage of the plant affects quality more than anything.”
The flock’s forage, whether it is hay, pasture or silage, should be submitted for analysis. “Samples should be taken on a regular basis as the pasture composition changes throughout the year,” he added. Depending on the results of an analysis, the animals may require grain and/or supplements.
In addition to protein and energy, fiber producing animals need two key amino acids, cysteine and methionine. Both amino acids contain sulfur. “When we had acid rain there was a lot of sulfur in the soil and we didn’t really need to worry about it,” he said, “however, we now need to supplement pastures with sulfur fertilizers.”
Sulfur levels can be tested with soil samples. Traditional soil samples do not measure sulfur levels. When preparing soil samples, take two. The samples will be sent to separate labs. One will determine the soil’s sulfur levels and the second will measure the pH level.
The pH levels also impact pasture quality. “Clover and grasses need a pH between 6.2 and 6.8. Alfalfa needs 6.8-7,” he noted, “always spend money on lime before fertilizer.” A soil test will show the soil’s pH and include recommendations for the amount of lime needed to correct an imbalance.
“We always think of the animal’s well being,” Gabriel said, “but we have to think about the plant too.” A plant’s nutrition is stored in its roots. The stored nutrients are used to make leaves and other processes critical to the plant.
Timing is everything. “When we graze bluegrass we start at 5 to 6 inches and graze down to 1 to 3 inches,” he explained, “timothy, orchard and broom grass we start at 6 to 10 inches. Anything over 10 inches sends up a seed stalk making fiber.”
Knowing when the pastures are ready for grazing is only part of the equation. It is equally important to know when to stop grazing a pasture, allowing it to rest. The length of graze time and rest time varies.
In the spring regrowth can occur within four days. “Measure how much dry matter the flock is eating and keep them in the pasture no more than four days,” he said. Then provide a rest period. The rest period may be as short as two weeks in the spring and up to six weeks by mid-summer.
“After grazing a paddock, clip it to about four inches,” Gabriel said, “clipping is the best weed management.”
Rotational grazing also helps with parasite management. “Moisture and manure will accelerate parasites,” he added, “spread out manure so it dries and the soil dries.” Overgrazing a pasture creates greater opportunities for parasite ingestion.
“A whole year’s worth of work can be ruined in five minutes of shearing,” Kennedy said. Taking time to prepare for shearing day can increase the price paid for the fleece.
Provide a clean surface. “I have a dedicated piece of plywood that is used for nothing else,” Kennedy said. Shearing on the ground can contaminate the fleece with manure, dirt and other debris. A tarp is not a good option either as it can be slippery and unstable.
Establish a good relationship with the shearer. “He asks what I want him to do,” she said, “a shearer should also be able to trim their toes and give wormer.”
Document the day the animal is shorn and record the weight of fleece produced.
The shearer’s technique plays an important role in the final value of the fleece. “The blanket should come off all in one piece,” Joe Hamilton, Shearer, explained, “when you have pills on a sweater it is from making too many shears and breaking the strength of the fiber.”
Like reading the growth rings in a tree’s trunk, the sheep’s fiber is a nutritional thumbprint. “You can tell the health of the animal by the luster/shine and the crimp in the wool,” he said.
Fleece should have consistent crimps, like a lasagna noodle, throughout the entire length of the fiber. Flat or straight sections indicate stress in the animal’s life. The straight, uncrimped pieces are weaker and susceptible to breakage.
Once the fleece is removed from the animal, lay it out on a flat surface and carefully remove pieces of hay, dirt or other debris. “You wouldn’t believe what some people bring us,” Mary Jeanne Packer of Battenkill Fibers said, “we will empty a bag of fleece and find manure, toe clippings and more, all decreasing the value of the fiber.”
Producing fleece is a year-long commitment. Implementing sound nutritional and grazing combined with careful shearing day techniques can lead to successful and profitable fleece producing operations.
by Katie Navarra