Sheep shearers travel further, work harder to meet rising demand

Mar 26, 2012

The American sheep industry has exploded in recent years, causing many producers to expand their operations. But more sheep means more people are needed to shear them, and the number of professional shearers has declined over the decades. Wyoming Public Radio’s Rebecca Martinez tagged along with a Wyoming-based shearer during a gig in Douglas and filed this report.

(Ambi) buzzing of clippers.

REBECCA MARTINEZ: For the first five months of every year, this is Rindy Harkness’s life. The 30 year-old Harkness runs Top Notch Shearing and Fitting, a contractor that shears flocks across Wyoming and six other states.  She’s a sturdy 5-foot-8 with short, shaggy brown hair. She wears a baseball cap, baggy clothes and a shy smile.

Today, 800 fluffy Rambouillet (RAM-boo-LAY) sheep are waiting in queue for a chute that leads up to Harknesses’ red wooden trailer. There, four of her contract shearers release them from the chute, one at a time,hn and get started. This means the shearers grab each sheep in a bear hug. One arm and both legs entwined with the animal, the free hand wields a heavy-duty electric clipper, running it steadily along the sheep’s belly, legs, sides, back and face.

RINDY HARKNESS: The goal of shearing is basically to harvest the fleece in one piece. By properly holding the sheep is how you get it to where they don’t fight you. And stretch the skin to where you don’t cut ‘em, and hold them to where they’re not kicking you.

MARTINEZ: By now, the sheep has lost 10 pounds worth of wool. When it’s released, it leaps out a back door of the trailer and rejoins the more-naked members of its flock.

(Quieter bleating)

It’s incredibly physical work. Men much bigger than Harkness break out a sweat right away. Harkness got into shearing because of an ex-boyfriend. As money came in, she bought the rig and the equipment, and started hiring contract shearers.

HARKNESS: Being female I got in good at a good time, because it was to the point where there wasn't as many shearers so you didn't need to be a big gun, shearing a lot of numbers to be able to get a shearing stand.

MARTINEZ: Sheep ranching had declined drastically in the past 50 years, and with it, the number of people willing to set aside six months to do the rancher’s seasonal grunt work. But last year, lamb meat AND wool prices reached an all-time high. Now producers are expanding their flocks, and they need skilled hands like the ones in Harkness’s crew to quickly and cleanly shear their sheep before they start giving birth to their lambs, usually around the same time each spring.

Harkness can shear about 130 sheep by herself in a day. Her crew can handle 6 or 700. They’ll tackle a flock of 10-thousand down in Colorado in a few weeks.

HARKNESS: pretty much I try to take most anything I can get, really. Obviously, once in a while, there’s some jobs I can’t get to just ‘cause it’s too far.

MARTINEZ: Sheep farms are more concentrated out East. Western sheep ranches are fewer and much farther between, and cattle are the more popular livestock in the region. Harkness starts putting her spring shearing schedule together in December, and maps out her routes around the Mountain West so as to minimize driving time.

Catherine Wissner of Wild Winds Sheep Company in Carpenter is happy to work around Harkness’s schedule because a shearing crew gets the job done so much faster than Wissner could do herself.

CATHERINE WISSNER: It’s in demand, we don’t have enough shearers to do it. There’s not a lot of people that want to do it, because it’s so physical, and it doesn’t necessarily pay the greatest. And you’re on the road all the time.

MARTINEZ: Harkness and her crew get a lot of business, but with that comes a lot of stress. Being one of few crews based in Wyoming, they live out of motels, drive hundreds of miles before starting work. And their schedule can change on a dime if bad weather sets in. You CAN NOT shear wet sheep. And when they’re dry, it’s work!

JIM MOORE: You’re bent over for about seven-and-a-half hours, and you’re positioning an animal that weighs 150 to 200 pounds all day long. You know it is good money but it’s so seasonal, and you’re not shearing every day.

That’s Jim Moore of Montana State University. He leads shearing workshops in hopes of teaching small-time ranchers to manage their own flocks, or train young people to shear sheep in their region.

Rindy Harkness says she’s worked with graduates of workshops like his. Hobby farmers especially.

HARKNESS: usually they go to the shearing school, then they go home and think they’re gonna do it and buy a whole bunch of equipment. And then they try it themselves and decide it’s too much work. But then they also decide it’s worth paying the shearers more to come and do it for them. So it all works out for them and for us both in the end, but it’s kind of a funny way of getting there.

MARTINEZ: After Harkness finishes her spring shearing in the Rocky Mountain region, she packs up and heads to Australia and New Zealand, where the sheep-shearing season happens in the other half of the year. She makes more money doing contract work on other crews down there, and she returns in time to start work in the Rockies in December.

Harkness says she’s been offered steady work in oil fields, which would offer health care and allow her to go home every night.

HARKNESS: I guess it’s just one of those things that’s born and bred with you. If you’re gonna be in ag, you’re gonna be in ag. I don’t like working for big companies, personally. I kind of enjoy the moving around and seeing different people in different countries rather than going to work at the same place everyday.

MARTINEZ: Exhausting as it is, Harkness says she loves the challenge and wants to be a shearer as long as her body allows her. She hopes other young Americans will challenge themselves to take up the profession, too.

For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Rebecca Martinez.