Friday, June 13, 2008

Sheared, shaved, shorn

Well, we've reached the other side of the shearing mountain. I now have a barn full of alpaca fiber in clear plastic trash bags, forming yet another mountain for me to scale.

We shear our animals using ropes and pulleys that stretch the animal out on the floor.

This is how the shearers from New Zealand do it and they're the absolute best. Because alpacas' instincts tell them that their heads, bellies and legs should never be touched lest they become a quick meal for a predator, this method of shearing incapacitates them so we can get the job done in 20 minutes or less. It's also much safer for the animal. Sheep shears can cut the skin wide open in a split second and a jumpy and nervous animal like an alpaca is especially at risk for this. I've heard of people shearing their animals standing up, but I can't imagine getting a safe, thorough and clean cut with the animal fussing and jumping around. It's also difficult to get all of the fiber off of the animal in the belly area, back end and the arm pits when the animal is standing. Not removing that fiber is an invitation for skin parasites and an opportunity to overlook areas that may harbor infection or wounds from the previous year.

Contrary to the concerns of those who believe that this method of shearing is cruel, I believe it is the most humane, the safest, the most efficient, and best option in terms of the long term health and comfort of the animal. The ropes allow me to put my hands and my eyes on every part of the animal, which gives me a chance to discover any previously unseen injuries or conditions that have developed. I think this is important for the overall health of the animal. 20-30 minutes stretched out on the ropes is much better than living 24/7 with the discomfort and long term effects of a chronic infection or infestation.

OK, enough of the preaching. This is our set up and here is an animal on the floor ready to shear. Most of the animals are not stretched tightly unless they struggle and fight. Pregnant females are not stretched fully and are not put on their bellies for any long than it takes to turn them over.

We take the blanket off first.

If we can get it in one piece, so much the better, but if an animal is having a hard time of it or if the female is within 30 days of delivery, we'll do one side at a time. The blanket is the main section of fleece, from the shoulder to the hip, possible including the neck if the fiber is of high quality. This is the prime fiber and the most valuable.

After the blanket, I shear the belly, the back leg and the neck and head--in that order. The animal is then raised upright and I shear the back end, the tail and the other side of the neck and head.

The animal is turned over to the opposite side and the last of the belly, the back leg, the front leg and the chest area are finished. The animal is completely sheared in an average of 20 minutes. We take the opportunity to trim toe nails, give vaccinations, vitamin injections and wormer paste. At the end of 30 minutes, the animal is back in the pen with the herd wondering what just happened.

I'd love to say I'm as good as the NZ guys, but that will never happen. With a full crew, those guys can shear an alpaca in 10 minutes and they can do 50-60 animals in one day. Sheesh! I'm not that fast, that tough, that young, or that focused. I do 10-12 on a good day, and I never have a full crew--just me and my two girls. I'm always afraid I'll get too tired and cut the animals by accident just because I wasn't on top of my game. Also, my shearing helpers are my two young girls who don't need to be wearing their backs out by trying to be heroic.

So that part of the year is over. We sheared our own animals and sheared for several other farms. I don't know how many we did altogether, but I'm glad it's done. We'll shear goats again in the fall and we'll be sorting, cleaning, and combing fiber for the rest of the summer. After that, the knitting starts again--hurrah!!


Pondside said...

Wow - what a chore! Your way sounds so rational and humane - better a safe animal than an injured one. So often our own sensibilities keep us from being sensible! You must be so happy to be finished for the season.

Kathleen said...

Well, the guy you pictured here looks like he's completely happy with his new haircut! It also looks like a very professional job. Good work!

ChrisH said...

That was fascinating to read and I loved the photo of the end result. I heard on the radio this morning that with low wages here and the cost of air fares the NZ shearers will be thin on the ground so our sheep will, we're told, be unshorn and smelly!

Anonymous said...

This was such an interesting post. I will show it to my husband later. We are having our sheep clipped in the next couple of weeks. There's about 300 altogether but they make a terrible noise as they are separated from their lambs! And we don't get the strapping lads in from NZ, we have to make do with a couple of chauvanist pigs from up the road!!

CJ xx

Able Oaks Ranch Alpacas said...

You have a nice shearing set-up and looks like lots of helping hands to get the job done. You might consider listing on the Shearers Diretory as a farm that hosts an annual shearing day to attract some smaller farms to your place on that day.

See Livestock Shearing Directory

Wooly Works said...

Thanks, Able Oaks! I'll do that!!

Crystal, we only started shearing our own about four years ago, we've had the NZ guys out numerous times in the past. I think they're chauvinists, to some degree, as well, but they sure get the job done. I'm enormously glad we don't have 300 alpacas to shear!!

Thanks for all the kind comments. I am ever so happy to be done.

marit said...

Thanks for sh(e)aring! This was really interesting! I'm about to shear 30something sheep- the "wild" ones with an awful wool...and I keep putting it off...
Good work! It will be fun seeing what you do with the wool (or is it called alpaca?)

Debra in France said...

Hi Wooly, you must be shattered! Thank you for such an interesting post and for explaining everything. You are right, to the layman, stretching the animals out like that looks awful, but when I read the explanation it all makes sense.

I bet you are glad that job is over for another year. Debra x