Finding a shearer who will travel to your farm can be a challenge. Finding a qualified and experienced shearer is even more difficult. In many areas of the US, shearers are in short supply and more than one desperate shepherd has resorted to scissors to relieve their animals of their fiber.
I have lost count of the number of farmers I have met who purchased shears in order to take care of their own animals, only to find that (a) the shears didn’t work as expected, (b) the blades that came with the shears were not sharp enough, (c) they were unable to shear without cutting the animal. This is very discouraging. I will address this in a separate article because you CAN shear your own animals if you really want to.
At the same time, I also have lost count of the number of farmers I have met who have unhappy stories about shearers who have:
- promised to come but never showed up
- arrived without appropriate or adequate shears and/or sharpened blades
- had little experience/no training and so took a very long time to do the job and/or mangled the fiber
- were in a great hurry and were rough with the animals and even injured them
- charged way above and beyond any reasonable market rate
There is no governing body nor any oversight in the U.S. for the shearing profession.** There are no licensing requirements, no minimum requirements for training and/or apprenticeship experience. Happily, these days everyone can be a detective. Please make sure you understand who it is you are inviting to your farm to use a very sharp cutting tool to remove the fiber from your animals.
** The American Sheep Industry Association lists “certified” shearers; however, this is a self-certification that relates more to fiber handling than shearing skill. The American Shearers Council provides a listing of shearers; however, their oversight is restricted to the selection of American shearers for the Golden Shears World Championship.
To be clear: shearers are an independent bunch and everyone has his or her own style. Farmers also are an independent lot and have their own styles. Finding the right combination of personality and approach to animals that both can agree with is not always easy but is worth the effort!
Of course, one of your best ways to get a shearer is to get a referral from someone you trust. But even with a referral, do your homework. Check out the shearer’s web site, Facebook page, Instagram, other social media. Are there videos of their work?
Here is a handy downloadable, fillable PDF you can use when choosing a shearer: Hiring a shearer checklist
There are many considerations that go into selecting any kind of service provider, especially when it comes to your animals. In addition to having a checklist, here are some important considerations:
[You may be able to evaluate some of these points only after working with your shearer.] These points are meant only as a guideline. There is no fixed right or wrong; there is just making an informed choice!
- Training. Has the shearer been professionally trained and/or apprenticed with someone to learn how to handle the animals and use the equipment?
- Equipment. Does the shearer have equipment in good working order and freshly sharpened blades?
- Animal handling. What is the shearer’s approach to handling the animals? Strong and direct, gentle and perhaps slower? Do they understand the animal body language and pressure points?
- Assistants. Even if the shearer is good, is his/her assistant? This person is just as important, especially when it comes to llamas and alpacas, because the assistant provides physical support as well as a good and calm attitude while holding the animals.
- Quality of the fiber removal. Does the shearer minimize second cuts, understand how the owner may want to skirt the fleece, and throw aside the belly wool/leg wool while shearing? Does the shearer remove alpaca fiber in firsts, seconds and thirds?
- Biosecurity. Does the shearer clean equipment and disinfect between farms?
- Personality. Can you get along well with the shearer and is communication clear?
- Availability. Be aware that the best shearers are booked up months in advance. Someone who is ready to come to you the next day is either magically in your area (and this DOES happen) and able to fit you in… or doesn’t have enough business. Most shearers work in geographical chunks, spending a certain amount of time in each region. It’s best to try to schedule early in the year, but if you call during the high season (April/May), you may find someone who can fit you in. Be patient. Shearers are on the road all the time and exhausted most of the time, so it may take a few days to return a text or email or phone call. Please don’t call a dozen shearers on the same day (see below on double booking).
- Pricing. This is tricky. For every 10 shearers there seem to be 10 different breakdowns of pricing. Note: if price is your primary consideration, you are barking up the wrong tree. That said, more expensive does NOT mean better quality service. Beware of the ‘add-on’ services that can really, well, add on to your bill. Some shearers charge by the head, plus a travel or setup fee. Some include hoof/toenail trims and some do not perform hoof trims at all. Some will charge additional fees for a variety of things such as: multiple years’ fleece growth, size or breed of animal, undocked tails, tooth trims (on alpacas), extremely overgrown hooves (if they do hooves at all), administering meds, applying fly spray, and the list goes on. Some shearers, on the other hand, charge an hourly rate. Regardless of how prices are structured, you are entitled to ask for an estimate before services are performed. Don’t let yourself be surprised. At the same time, please represent your needs accurately so that an accurate estimate can be given. One other consideration: is your shearer a “business” or a “service”? It’s worth a ponder.
- Please don’t double book. The one cardinal sin that shearers will get very upset about is if you double book them and another shearer. Sometimes we will receive a phone call and scramble to try to figure out how to fit someone in, only to find that the farmer has called 4 other people at the same time. I’ve heard of shearers driving hours to a job, only to find all the sheep in the field, freshly shorn. Don’t be that farmer.
KNOW WHAT TO EXPECT: Background information on shearing methods
Sheep: the golden standard for shearing sheep is the Bowen (New Zealand) method. The Bowen method is designed to keep the sheep calm, to put minimal stress on the shearer’s body, to move the sheep such that the skin is stretched tight where the shears travel resulting in a clean clip and no skin nicks and to enable the shearer to remove the fleece in one piece. If your shearer uses a different method, ask them why.
It should take your shearer between 2 and 5 minutes to shear most types of sheep. Some more difficult breeds (with a great deal of facial and leg wool or with several years of growth) may take longer.
- on a shearing mat with the animal stretched out using ropes around each ankle
- on a shearing table with the animal’s legs secured by straps
If your shearer uses a different method, ask them why.
Both of these methods are safe both for the animals and the shearers. Typically with the mat system the shearer will have an assistant to move the animal as it is being shorn. Toenails are usually clipped at this time and teeth (incisors and male fighting teeth) can also be ground down if necessary.
It should take your shearer between 5 and 10 minutes to complete this process (depending on whether dental work needs to be done and how many helpers are involved). The shearer should understand the three primary grades of alpaca fiber and remove these separately so that the owners can collect and skirt/bag.
Llamas: Llamas are strong and intelligent and sometimes flighty animals. They need to be handled with care and understanding of their physiology and pressure points. There are basically two methods used for shearing llamas: standing or laid down on a mat (like alpacas). Most llama shearers seem to prefer to shear standing, with the llama either confined in a chute or tied in a corner. Some llamas are either unwilling to continue standing (and “cush” – lie down continuously) thus making it difficult to access legs and belly, or they are so wild and potentially dangerous that the only safe way to shear them is to tie them down. Note: tying a llama down can cause a great deal of stress and can even cause injury due to their different physiology from alpacas.
Goats: Shearing goats efficiently and well is the holy grail. Some shearers shear goats as they would a sheep. Others use the “Mexican method”, tying 3 legs together and shearing in a circle. Others put them on a stand. Yet others may lay them out on their sides in a method similar to shearing alpacas. To the best of my knowledge, there is no gold standard for goat shearing methods. Things to know: angora goats have thin and often wrinkly skin, are not as equipped as sheep to tolerate cold weather after shearing. They have long, floppy ears and horns that have a habit of getting in the way, and are wiggly and, well, are goats. They take longer to shear.
Owning fiber animals is a true pleasure, and working with a shearer whom you like and trust is an important part of the husbandry for these beautiful animals. I hope some of these objective points may help you in your quest!
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