Shearing is a service. As such, shearers aim to please the farmers, remove the fiber efficiently and expertly, and treat the animals with respect. But there is a big difference between shearers and other animal service providers, such as farriers, veterinarians, even dog groomers: shearing, by and large is a once-a-year activity. It is, after providing food, water, and shelter, the most important thing a farmer does for his fiber animal.
Let’s look at the logistics of spring shearing on the east coast.
First, by and large the flocks are small, starting with 1 and going up to, perhaps 100 or so. There are some larger production flocks, but nothing at all compared to the flocks out west whose numbers may be in the five-digit range and where many days and a whole team of shearers will be involved.
»Meaning … most east coast shearers are ‘lone rangers’, often scheduling 6-10 farms in one day.
Second, the bulk of shearing takes place in April, May and June, with some exceptions for sheep farms who plan to lamb early in the season and so want February or March shearing.
»Meaning … there are only approximately 12 weeks in which to get it all done after the freezes have passed and before the brutal summer heat starts.
Third, nearly every farm requiring shearing is run by people who have day jobs.
»Meaning … there are a very limited number of weekend dates available and hordes of farmers wanting those dates.
Fourth, we travel a lot. Some shearers start in Florida and work their way up the coast to Maine. Others stick within a 3-5 hour radius of their home base.
»Meaning …. we really love to try to group farms in the same geographical area together in one trip for economy of time as well as gas.
Fifth, farmers are human. They have preferences as to the experience, style, speed, and even personality of their shearer. There are a number of shearers who cover the mid-Atlantic region, all of them quite different.
»Meaning … we want to please you and that includes trying to give you a convenient shearing date, but we are human too; we can’t be everything to everyone, nor can we manufacture more hours in a day. When it comes to scheduling, we advocate a healthy dose of compromise!
Sixth, many shearers shear multiple species. We use different equipment for different types of animals, and each animal has a different shearing pattern. It’s not like showing up at a sheep farm where there are a few hundred all of the same breed – you can get into a zone for hours. Shearing multiple breeds and multiple species means changing equipment, combs and cutters, adjusting one’s body to a different rhythm, and adjusting one’s hand movements to quite different body types.
»Meaning … we have to factor those changes into our time schedules.
Seventh, often shearing is not just shearing. Midwest and west coast shearers are shocked when we say our clients want us to do hoof trims. “Shearing day is only for shearing”, they say. But many of our clients expect that we will trim hooves, trim teeth, discuss husbandry issues, fiber skirting, product marketing, and more.
» Meaning … our service takes more time than just pure fiber removal.
Eighth, rain. You can’t shear a wet animal. If a farmer does not have a way to keep animals indoors AND a location large, light, and flat enough for indoor shearing, your schedule gets shot to pieces if it rains.
»Meaning … you now have to go back and re-do your schedule because of lost time due to weather.
Ninth, farmer preparedness. Everyone knows that animals need to be penned up prior to shearing, and that sheep need to be taken off feed the night before. But things happen. A farmhand didn’t get the message, or a naughty goat busted out the gate and let all the animals out, or the shearer got home at 11 pm the night before and forgot to remind the farmer to ‘please lock up your animals’, or all the Murphy’s laws conspire so that when you arrive, animals are running loose, are wet, are full of feed, are giving birth; farmhands have gone home for the day, farmers have to pick up children at school or have a conference call with their office; barn space hasn’t been cleared for shearing; aliens have landed.
»Meaning … shearers’ hair stands up on end while the entire day’s schedule is ruined, knowing that every single farm scheduled after this one will be mad.
Tenth, acts of God and the kitchen sink. Vehicles break down. Clippers get an electrical short. Knees get kicked out by llamas rendering shearer temporarily unable to walk. No cell phone or Internet service in many rural areas. You catch the flu.
»Meaning … expect shearers to have a bizarre sense of humor.
What are shearers saying about scheduling shearing?
“The hardest part of the job.”
“I LOVE it when people say, ‘schedule us when it is convenient.’
“Everyone wants a weekend – there just aren’t that many weekends!”
“I’d rather take a physical whipping than schedule clients.”
“A logistical nightmare.”
While scheduling takes many dozens of hours before and during shearing season, it is a small price to pay for the independence shearers have, and the joy we get from our work.
One of my sheep clients commented to me last year, “you shearers must all be totally nuts.” I smiled quietly, proud to be a shearer, proud to be nuts, and happy to know I have one of the best jobs in the world.
Dearest farmers, schedule with us early and often!