Shepherding for Superior Wool

Do you want to get serious about getting quality wool from your sheep for wool production? Follow these tips from professional shepherds.

by Dani Yokhna

By Cherie Langlois

from the pages of Hobby FarmsFor Robin Nistock of Prattsburg, N.Y., growing up around her parents’ commercial flock of sheep coupled with catching the spinning bug in the late 1980s, it was only natural that she would have her own sheep one day. “When I got married, my husband got a package deal—me, a few sheep and my Irish Wolfhound,” she says.

Nistock decided she couldn’t settle on one ovine breed because “so many had fleece attributes I admired.”  Since she began breeding for fleece quality in 1990, her flock has evolved to include ewes with Border Leicester, Romney, Corriedale and Finn influence. 

Drop by Cherie’s Blog to read about some of her own sheep–and other country discoveries
She introduced Moorit coloring and increasing fineness to her sheep’s fleeces with Moorit rams. She also became enamored with purebred Cotswolds and acquired some a few years ago.  Today her flock has 65 ewes and eight rams, giving her a range of fine, medium and long wools in white and natural colors. 

“I market the main part of my fleeces to hand spinners, either as raw fleece or roving,” says Nistock, whose raw fleeces sell for between $7.50 and $12 a pound depending on color, crimp, luster and other factors.  “Being a one-man band, I can’t quite keep up with what the sheep give me and the demand for spinning fiber.”

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Feeling envious?  If you’ve already discovered the joy of having a wee flock of sheep adorning your farm, you may have also dreamt about those animals and their fluffy fleeces growing into an actual money-making business.

It’s true:  Hand spinners, those talented folks who turn wool fibers into yarn with a whirl of the wheel, will pay premium prices for fleeces—but only if they’re of high quality.  Here, experienced sheep raisers tell you how to tap this market by taking your wool production to a higher level.   
Growing Quality Fleeces
Wool is a wonderful fiber to work with and to wear; it’s natural, it’s breathable and it’s insulating.  Depending on what type of yarn they’re spinning and its ultimate use, hand spinners look for wool in a variety of colors and textures.  Yarn made of finer Merino wool, for instance, may be perfect for a soft scarf or a baby sweater; yarn composed of the rough fleece of a Scottish Blackface is ideal for hooking a tough rug. 

“You need to know what your wool is good for and how to educate your buyers,” says Judy Taylor, a spinner and a rug-hooker who has raised Jacob sheep for 18 years on Edeldal Farm in Auburn, Wash.  “There’s a perfect project for every fleece.”

Although their tastes may vary, spinners want fleeces that are consistent from front to back and that are free of second cuts, wool breaks and vegetation.  Adopt the following strategies and you’ll be well on your way to pleasing the pickiest spinner. Keep it clean. 

Pristine wool doesn’t happen by itself.  Sheep can make a surprising mess of their fleeces by scratching against trees, by cavorting through weeds and by dragging alfalfa across each other’s backs as they eat. Not surprisingly, a fleece tangled with bits of hay or marred by manure tags won’t make your hand spinning clients happy–or earn you repeat customers.

“My number one strategy is to keep the fleeces clean. Cleanliness is the main thing that makes a difference in the price you get for a fleece,” says Dee Heinrich, who raises Romneys and Romney-crosses at Peeper Hollow Farm in Marion, Iowa.

Heinrich coats her sheep to keep their wool from becoming contaminated with debris, a practice she began after her first disastrous shearing that took her hours to pick enough straw, seed heads and dirt out of one fleece to meet her high standards. According to Australian studies, sheep coats or covers lead to higher wool yields and protect fleeces against sun damage and rot.   
Nistock also keeps her sheep coated all year—except for her Cotswolds, whose curly fleeces tend to felt (even when their garments fit perfectly). Indeed, it’s a good idea to test a few animals to determine if coats are appropriate for your breed and your situation. 

Keep in mind that covers should consist of breathable material that won’t cause the wool to mildew, and they need to be washed and changed regularly as the wool grows.  Nistock, who uses durable Rocky Mountain Sheep Suits on her flock, changes coat sizes a minimum of three times per sheep in between shearings.

The type of feeder you use will also affect the cleanliness of your flock’s fleeces.  Heinrich went from wall-mounted feeders which rained hay onto her animals as they ate, to a modified bale feeder which sits on the ground and helps prevent this messy problem. Feeding technique counts, too; sheep are notorious for sauntering into the line of fire as you dish out dinner.  “I always put out hay with the barn door closed and let the animals in when all the food is out,” says Taylor. 

It’s important to keep wool sheep in a clean environment and out of brush and mud, adds Paul Walker, a Livestock Extension Agent in North Carolina’s Alamance County. Combat mud around your barns and manage your fields to reduce wool-contaminating weeds.  Watch what you use for barn bedding—wood shavings are notoriously difficult to remove from fleece.  Straw or a layer of straw over shavings is a better option. Strive for healthy sheep and avoid unnecessary stress.

Wool production benefits from healthy animals, says Walker.  Good nutrition, well-managed pastures, and appropriate parasite control and vaccination programs will all translate into better fleeces and more wool per animal.

“My sheep maintain a good, steady plane of nutrition all year,” Nistock explains. “I don’t pour grain down them, but I do make sure they don’t go into a marked weight loss situation that may show up as a wool break later. While it’s true that good sheep shouldn’t need to be fed a lot of concentrates and coddled in a barn, it’s also true that you have to give an animal better than they’d find in the wild if you really expect them to produce a high-quality product.”

Taylor also views diet as an important ingredient for producing fine fleeces.  In September she starts supplementing her flock’s grazing with quality alfalfa.  By October’s end, when the animals are moved off the fields, they’re receiving alfalfa morning and night. The ewes get grain year-round, and Taylor increases their concentrates during pregnancy and lactation to prevent weight loss.

Heavy worm burdens can negatively impact your flock’s fleeces:  you’ll see a break or a tenderness in the wool, explains Heinrich, who advocates pasture rotation as a way of controlling parasites.  Sheep should also be treated for external parasites like keds and lice that can cause itching and rubbing—a definite wool-spoiler.   

Finally, try to avoid stressing your flock unnecessarily:

  • Make captures in a confined area so you won’t have to chase your sheep around the pasture (it’ll be less stressful for you, too) and don’t grab them by their wool.
  • Have hoof trimmers, styptic powder, vaccinations and other supplies organized and ready to make your sheep’s time in the stanchion short and sweet.
  • Keep fences in good repair so dogs and other predators won’t harass your flock or consider acquiring a guardian animal.
  • Take time to tame your sheep by doling out treats and by scratching their favorite spots (Taylor says her sheep like to be stroked where the neck meets the chest); they’ll be more relaxed if they don’t think you’re the big bad wolf.
  • A few more shepherding tips

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About the Author: Cherie Langlois is a Washington-based writer who keeps Jacob sheep. A Canadian mill transforms her flock’s spotted fleeces into beautiful blankets.

This article first appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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