Wool in the West

By Kelsey Berkoff
Contributing Writer for Rural Living

Sheep1

A Peruvian sheepherder, with his miniature border collie, drives a flock of sheep toward the corral outside the shearing shed, where the shearing crew awaits them. With 7,500 sheep on Cross Mountain Ranch, “It’ll take four days to shear,”woolgrower Chuck Winn said, barring any delays. Kelsey Berkoff photo

More than just a sheep’s annual haircut, spring sheep shearing marks a pivotal time for sheep owners — crucial to the point of making or breaking an entire sheep ranch, according to Moffat County wool growers Andrew Maneotis and Chuck Winn.

It’s all about timing — coordinating your schedule with lambing season, the weather and the sheep shearing crews.

“There’ll be a time when everybody gets a little nervous, because you have to shear before you lamb,” Winn said.

According to Winn, who cares for Cross Mountain Ranch’s 7,500 sheep, and has 1,500 of his own, “The first thing is you have to wait for good weather.” Though the moisture is usually welcome in Northwest Colorado, wool growers start looking for the clear skies and temperatures they need to finish the shearing before lambing season.

“You bring them off the winter ranges and shear them so you’re ready to lamb,” said Maneotis. He and his brother John own Maneotis Livestock, with about 4,000 sheep. He explained that the wool has to come off so the newborn sheep can find the ewe’s udder to drink milk.

But it’s dangerous to shear too soon, Maneotis said. “If they take too much of the wool off … then you get some snow or real cold weather, you’ll kill them,” he said. “You’ve got to be real careful … it’ll put you out of business.”

Winn said they insist their shearers use the Wyoming style “comb,” which leaves on about a fourth of an inch of wool. “They need that extra to survive,” he said.

Once you take a sheep’s coat off, Winn said, you can’t put it back on — and there’s no barn in Moffat County big enough to shelter all the sheep. “It’d take an awfully big barn to put 7,000 sheep into,” Winn said.

If a storm does blow in after the shearing, he added, they’ll herd the sheep into a deep wash.

“The good Lord put that sagebrush out there for a reason — it’s actually the barn lots of times for those sheep,” he said. “Moffat County’s always been a good sheep county, on account of this sagebrush.”

Maneotis told of sheep growers losing seven or eight hundred sheep in a blizzard — and in one incident about a decade ago, he said, “they lost over a hundred thousand in Wyoming, in one storm.”

“We all have to decide when they need to be [sheared] so that they don’t get out in the blizzard conditions,” Winn said. “That’s kind of scary for all sheep guys.

“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong,” he said. “It looks easy … but there’s a lot of worry to it.

“It’ll take four days to shear 7,500 sheep,” Winn said, barring any delays, like a generator break-down, a snowstorm or hired help jumping ship.

Sheep2

Sheep wait quietly in the pen after getting their annual spring haircut. Chuck Winn, who manages the sheep for Cross Mountain Ranch, said shearers have to watch the weather — if you shear too soon, he said, and a snowstorm blows in, it can kill the sheep. Kelsey Berkoff photo

Winn supervised the shearing of Cross Mountain’s flock in April, and has plans to shear his own sheep May first.

“You never have a good time to do it, believe me,” Winn said. “Now it’s cold, you know, but then the first of May it can start raining that first week, and never quit. I’m kind of in the category like Grand Olde West Days, you know? You plan a good thing … and it rains.”

Maneotis pointed out that you can’t shear a sheep wet because wet wool will mold in the bag. “It makes a product that nobody wants,” he said.

Once the weather’s lined up, wool growers start preparing for shearing — a familiar process to both Maneotis and Winn.

According to Winn, “The first shearing pen I ever went to was probably in 1953, and my first job there was playing on the wool bags and getting in everybody’s way.”

Back then, he said, shearers hand packed the tube-shaped burlap bags, then rolled them into a pile. “It was more fun to run up and down on those bags,” he said.

Growing up, Winn’s kids did the same.

Now, “my grandkids … they’re playing on the bags … so that has not changed. You always start there,” Winn said. “Since then I’ve done just about everything.”

Winn has managed sheep for Cross Mountain Ranch for 13 years. “We try to do as good a job to them as we do for our own sheep,” he said.

Maneotis, too, has grown up in the wool. “I’ve been doing it since the beginning of time, I think,” he said, “ever since I was little.

“My dad immigrated from Greece about, oh, 1915,” Maneotis said, “worked in the coal mines for a while, then he come to Craig and fought the cowboys off and got his sheep started … so we kind of took it over from him.”

Sheep3

At the Cross Mountain Ranch, an Australian crew of sheep shearers use hand-held electric “combs” to take the wool off sheep, while wool pickers retrieve the shorn fleece, which is then put into a wool packing machine. “It’s a lot of work,” said Andrew Maneotis, who also owns a sheep operation. “Them sheep shearers are pretty strong people.” Kelsey Berkoff photo

 

Over the years, the industry has changed, but some aspects of the shearing process remain untouched — it’s still a tiring manual task.

“It’s a lot of work,” Maneotis said. “Them sheep shearers are pretty strong people.”

In the springtime, shearing crews start coming in on contract, most of them from Peru, Australia and New Zealand.

“Before the shearer gets there you have to make sure the corrals are clean, so there’s no contamination —” anything that would dirty a fleece, from dirt to straw to pieces of rope, Winn said.

Depending on the woolgrower’s facilities, the shearing takes place either on a shearing floor in a barn or shed, or in a trailer the sheep shearers bring with them. Maneotis now takes the trailer route, whereas Winn uses the traditional shearing floor method.

Sometimes, Winn said, they keep the sheep in a barn overnight to prevent frost or dew from moistening the wool.

“You absolutely don’t want that wool to have any moisture in it, or it shrinks more,” Winn said.

Early in the morning, Peruvian sheepherders drive the sheep through a chute into the shearing shed, where the shearing crew awaits.

Each shearer, Winn said, will catch a sheep by a back leg and bring it over to his station. “You just grab it by the tail, and by the head, and you flip it over real easy … and she’s out of there before she even knows it,” he said.

Starting with the back legs, the shearer uses a hand-held electric “comb,” powered by a generator, and start peeling the wool off, “just like a barber,” Winn said.

“… except the hand piece has a long arm on it with gears, and this clipper runs real fast. It’s extremely dangerous, not only for the shearer, but for the sheep, too,” he said, explaining that one kick from the sheep can cause injury to either party.

“It looks simple, but it can be very hard to do,” he said. “There’s a knack to it.”

Winn added that sheep shearing isn’t inhumane — on the contrary, “they want that wool off them,” Winn said. “Can you imagine not shampooing your hair for a year? … It’s not cruel, they like it.” After being shorn and pushed through another chute, some sheep even start leaping around, he said.

While the shearer grabs another sheep, a “wool picker” takes the fleece to a table. There, a third hand puts the good fleeces into a hydraulic wool packer, which compacts the wool into large, square bags, which hold between 30 and 50 fleeces apiece. The packed bags weigh between 400 and 500 pounds each.

“The coarse wool he will throw off to the side,” Winn said. “Then later, when there’s not much action, he’ll bag up the coarse wool.”

With the trailers, Maneotis said, “You just run your sheep up a chute into the trailer and they pull ‘em down and shear ‘em, kick ‘em out a door.”

Once outside, the freshly sheared, yellow-tinted sheep are crowded into yet another chute, where they’re branded with paint — which washes out over time — and given medicines to eliminate ticks and internal parasites.

Then the sheep are counted — “That way the owner knows how many sheep have been shorn that day,” Winn said. Shearers each keep track of how many sheep they’ve shorn, and in the evening, the shearing captain compares their numbers with the sheep owner’s total.

“It’s never the same as my tally,” Winn said. “However, most of the time, the tally’s not off that far, so we go ahead and pay him … we’re happy with his job, we want him back next year.”

“Generally the sheep shearer will get somewhere between $2.50 a head to as much as $3 a head,” Winn said. “Before you pay the sheep shearer, there are supplies to buy,” he said — wool bags, paint and medicine.

After all is shorn and done, the grower makes about $6 per sheep, he said.

Once counted, the sheep are released into the field again. “That’s when the real work starts,” Winn said. “You have to worry whether they’ll make it through the first four or five days without their coats. After they get acclimated then they do just fine.”

Another major concern for sheep owners is finding the hired help they need.

Besides the Australians and New Zealanders, there’s a Peruvian crew and a few Mexican shearers left, and “that’s about it,” Maneotis said. “There’s only a few crews left around [and] lots of sheep waiting for sheep shearers.”

“There’s usually between eight and twelve [shearers in a crew],” Maneotis said. “They go around the country, around the world, and shear.”

The crews travel from ranch to ranch shearing sheep, sometimes waiting at one place for a few weeks, hoping the weather improves. Meanwhile, other growers must wait their turn.

“The shearer is faithful to his old customers — he will not leave, which I respect, because he wouldn’t leave me, either,” Winn said.

Between uncertain weather and sparse shearing crews, growers work within a tight, tentative schedule. They have to find a window of good weather between winter snows and spring rain, all while waiting for the shearers. But they can’t wait too long — the sheep often have miles to travel before reaching the lambing grounds in time for the lambs to be born.

Maneotis has a ten-day trail to reach his lambing grounds, so “if they delay me too long I’ll have to get trucks and load them up or push them harder,” he said.

Once the shearing crew does arrive, they waste no time.

Maneotis said one shearer, if he’s good, will shear between 120 and 150 sheep a day, and a team of 11 good shearers can finish between 1,100 and 1,500 sheep a day.

“These guys who come and shear anymore are real smooth and easy, they’re not like the rough shearers they used to have in the old days,” Winn said. “They take pride in it, and they want to do each grower a good job.”

Maneotis agrees.

“Most of them, they’re pretty good guys, pretty good shearers. Take care of the sheep, you know, they’re not mean to them,” he said, recalling a time when shearers weren’t so gentle.

Another way the years have changed the wool business is how growers and buyers determine the wool’s quality.

“In the old days we used to shear the sheep and sell the wool on a grease basis,” Winn said, “You’d get paid by the weight … the heavier the better.”

To make the wool heavier, sheep would be kept in a “sweat shed” overnight, where the heat would bring out the lanolin — the valuable grease in a sheep’s fleece — to make the wool heavier, “and the next morning they’d shear it,” Winn said.

“Nowadays that’s all changed,” he said.

Wool is now rated by micron (the amount of kink in the fibers). The micron scale ranges from 56 (straight or “coarse” wool) to 70, the tightest kink, and highest quality, used in the most expensive apparel. The coarse wool is used for yarns and carpet.

“There’s nothing wrong with this wool,” Winn said, “it’s all useable.”

Maneotis said they take their wool to the Wool Warehouse in Craig and store it there until they find a buyer, who picks it up, cleans and uses it.

“We sell it to make yarns,” he said.

The wool is also sorted by length, color, and cleanliness. “Belly wool,” for example, refers to the wool from the sheep’s underside, which is dirtier and shorter because the animal sleeps on its stomach, and the wool is snagged loose by weeds and sagebrush. This wool and other shorter-length wool is used in making high-quality wool baseball caps, boot linings, stocking hats and gloves.

Also, Maneotis said, different breeds of sheep will raise different kinds of wool.

“Columbia, they’ll have coarser wool, Rambouillett will have finer wool. So most people cross those two,” said Maneotis, who owns mostly Colombia-Rambouillett cross sheep. Winn works with pure Rambouillett sheep.

Maneotis said the quality of the wool also depends on the season and location — a snowy winter will make for clean fleece, but a desert stay will make the wool dirtier and greasier.

Winn said it’s hard for people in Moffat County to compete with sheep growers in New Mexico, Texas and South Dakota because “our conditions here aren’t the best to put up the very, very best,” he said. Because of our weather and vegetation, “it’s a challenge for the growers … you just can’t butt heads with Mother Nature,” he said.

Though Moffat County boasts thousands of sheep, it’s not easy to find a wool garment labeled “Made in USA.” Winn said they pack their American-grown wool into bags marked “Made in China,” then ship it to China where it’s processed, turned into wool products, and returned to the US for sale.

“We have to be competitive because we’re on a worldwide market,” Winn said. “The wool nowadays goes to China, and they’re very particular about how they receive our product.”

Winn explained that they have little choice where they ship their wool — China holds the main wool market.

“We have pride in what we’re selling,” Winn said, “[but] we lose our recognition of where the wool comes from… it’s a shame.”

In Winn’s opinion, the lack of young sheep growers is an even bigger concern than shipping U.S products to China. In time, he said, there’s a good chance the sheep industry will be just a display in local museums. “It is sort of headed into that direction, because there’s just no young guys to pick this thing up,” he said.

Personally, Winn says that’s not a problem — his sons and grandkids are following in his footsteps. “My boy Stuart, he does an awful lot … I’m lucky to have him to fill in behind me,” he said.

Like his 5-year-old grandson Chandler Winn declared, “Sheep are cool!”

Though both Maneotis and Winn agreed that the sheep business has its problems — rising expenses, no new generation of sheep growers, lack of good help, public land use issues, predators — neither would trade in their lifestyle.

“It’s been fun, all these years doing it,” Winn said.

“The labor’s probably the worst part of this business … and predators,” Maneotis said, “but you know, it’s a good life… you’re outside all the time and you’re working and, you know, it’s worth doing.”

Sheep4

Five-year-old Chandler Winn makes himself useful at sheep shearing time, lending a hand as one of the Peruvian sheepherders rolls a full bag of wool over to the pile of bags. The tightly-packed bags weigh between 400 and 500 pounds each, said Chuck Winn, Chandler’s grandpa. Kelsey Berkoff photo

Kelsey Berkoff lives and writes in Craig, Colorado. She works as a contributing writer for the Rural Living magazine and as the Community Editor for the Moffat County Morning News. To contact her, send an email to kelsey@moffatcountynews.com or call (970) 824-6238.

Rural Living is a publication of the Moffat County Morning News, based out of Craig, Colorado. To subscribe, or for more information about Rural Living, call 970-824-6238 or visit our website at www.moffatcountynews.com.

Reprinted with permission from the “Rural Living” magazine

© Copyright 2007 Kelsey Berkoff. All rights reserved.

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4 responses to “Wool in the West

  1. This was a very interesting article. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Hi. Wow! I got more than I expected by going in to ask you a question. This is a great informational page – like an ed-ucation in WOOL. Thanks! Also my husband, daughter and I who attend the Meeker Sheep Dog Trials yearly love your little “Rural Living” mag that we picked up for free. Cool! Thanks.
    The articles were great and I particularly enjoyed the one of Mr. Carr and his bear adventures over the years. But I would like to know if you know how much his books are before I embarrass myself by “phoning” him to order one/some. Could you get me that information please. Thank you, so much.
    We will be looking for your magazine again when we travel from UT to CO. God bless you and yours…and the sheep too. And especially the Border Collies my husband would say!
    Sylvia

  3. I will forward your message to Kelsey, the writer of the article. I am not with the paper, I was simply lucky enough to get permission to reprint the article on my blog, as the newspaper does not have a blog. I was so happy to share it with everyone!

  4. Hi Sylvia,

    I’m glad you enjoy our magazine. FYI, if you’re interested in getting the Rural Living Magazine more than one a year, you can subscribe — it’s $35/year. 🙂 Let me know!

    Dalton Carr’s books cost between $20 and $25, I think… I can’t remember exactly.

    Kelsey
    Moffat County Morning News

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