Most production flocks would agree wholeheartedly that pre-lambing shearing is preferred (the general rule of thumb is to schedule 4-6 weeks – but no closer than 2-3 weeks – prior to expected lambing date). However, I shear for a lot of hobby and pet flocks, as well, and often there is hesitation on the part of owners to engage in this practice, especially when their ewes are due to lamb before the weather turns warm. With very few exceptions, I’m a firm believer in pre-lambing shearing, and this is why:
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- AIDS IN BIRTHING: A freshly shown ewe is one that you can observe for any problems in birthing.
- EASY ACCESS TO MILK: A ewe without wool hanging down around her belly offers her lamb easy-to-access teats. A wooly sheep may lose a lamb because the baby is sucking on dirty wool tags, unable to locate the teat.
- PROTECTS THE LAMB FROM WEATHER: If it is cold outside, a shorn ewe will go into the barn for shelter and warmth. She will bring her newborn lamb in with her. A wooly sheep will not feel the cold, and will therefore remain outside, along with her newborn lamb – who may freeze to death as a result.
- ATTITUDE, ATTITUDE, ATTITUDE: A pregnant ewe is fat and logey. She just wants to sit around all day watching soap operas, so moving her into shearing positions is easy. She is so big, she could care less. A nursing ewe, however, is full of protective energy directed towards her lamb, and she becomes agitated when separated from her baby. The baby, in turn, screams for her mama and there ensues a very loud, stressful, and not entirely pleasant shearing experience for anyone.
- UDDERS: Shearing around a large udder full of milk is risky business. I know I wouldn’t want those sharp clippers around my parts during this critical time. If the clippers accidentally nick even a small part of the udder, the results can be dangerous to both the animal who may need medical attention, and to the shearer, who may get chased off by a farmer wielding a pitchfork. Just Don’t Do It.
- AVOIDS WOOL BREAK: Giving birth is a major stress on the body; it often results in wool break, which compromises the quality of the wool – and sometimes ruins the fleece entirely.
- A CLEANER SHEAR: Along with avoiding wool breakage, shearing a fat and pregnant ewe is smoother and easier – the body is round and not concave; the ewe has not yet begun to give everything she has to produce milk. Often nursing ewes become quite thin for a month or two after lambing and shearing a thin ewe is more difficult and results in a lesser quality fleece.
- A STICKY MESS: Your ewe produces a very hard, sticky lanolin that is often extremely hard to get through even with the sharpest of blades. I liken the sensation to trying to cut a piece of wood with a butter knife. While I appreciate the opportunity to build up my forearm muscles, this is not nice for your sheep – the sensation she feels is a pulling on her skin throughout the shearing process, and as a result, she struggles and is unhappy, the shearer is unhappy, the wool does not come off cleanly, and so the farmer is unhappy. The video below shows the worst case of this that I’ve ever encountered.
So, now that I’ve convinced you to shear your sheep before they lamb…
What are the contra-indications?
- You don’t have a barn. If you don’t have a barn, then your shorn ewes have nowhere to go to get warm. (But why do you have sheep and no barn for them, inquiring minds want to know?)
- It’s very early in the year. If you shear early, your sheep will be in full fleece in summer. (You can, however, belly them out in August or even do a fall shearing, as well.)
- You have the option of crutching. If you’re really queasy about shearing when it’s still cold out and you can get your shearer out to crutch your sheep and come back later in the season, then that is a good second option.
- Blanket. You can shear but put on sheep blankets or even cut up one of your old sweatshirts or sweaters.
“If I REALLY don’t want to shear before lambing, then when should I schedule shearing?”
I advise that you wait a good 6-8 weeks after the ewe has given birth. The lambs will be in the process of being weaned, milk production will be down, and the ewe will have started to put some normal weight back on.
Post shearing care
Your sheep will certainly need your help in staying warm after they are shorn. Make sure they have access to a barn or runin with full protection from the wind, and that this area is heavily bedded down with straw that they can nestle in. They will also need to consume more hay to keep their internal fires burning, so make sure you don’t skimp on feeding hay. If there is a sudden and unexpected drop in temperatures, do consider putting a blanket or old sweatshirt or sweater on your sheep to make them comfortable. Heat lamps are an option, too, although many people worry about fire hazards with these.