Shearing out of the Mainstream: One Group's Solution
by A. Richard Cobb
Union County is out of the mainstream. Located in deep Southern Illinois, 25 miles north of the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, Union County is actually further south than Richmond, Virginia. Union County, with rolling, tree covered hills is unlike the flat, black dirt country that people visualize when they think of Illinois. The county and surrounding areas are very rural and like many other counties across America, have a few sheep producers that each raises a few sheep of different breeds
Being out of the mainstream has not kept sheep producers in this area from being one of the most progressive and active groups in the state. In 1991, with the closure of sheep research activity at the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center and the associated wool pool, local producers formed the Shawnee Lamb and Wool Producers Association with the goals of running the wool pool, and continuing to educate local sheep producers. The association continues to promote lamb and wool while holding informational programs for producers of all ages. In addition, they run the Shawnee Area Wool Pool and have helped develop a strong junior sheep show at the Union County Fair. When marketing of lambs and cull stock became a problem, they organized the Shawnee Lamb Pool. Today, five to six lamb pools are held each year between June and December, and are probably the only lamb pools that start at 5:30 PM to accommodate their producers.
One of the main problems facing the sheep producers of Union County and the Shawnee group, as well as much of Illinois, is the lack of sheep shearers. While shearers do visit the area, they usually deal only with the larger flocks and many smaller producers find it extremely difficult to have their animals shorn. Some producers have adapted by raising hair sheep but others have sold their flocks out of frustration.
In 2002, the Shawnee group confronted this problem head on by establishing a “Sheep Shearing Day.” Now producers can bring their sheep to a central location on a given day to have them shorn by competent shearers. To accomplish this, the sheep producers had to consider the following:
1. Coordinator(s): To set up and run the program. This person(s) is responsible for establishing a location, setting a date, alerting area producers, locating sheep shearers, and establishing a per head price for shearing. The coordinator should have an idea of how many sheep will be shorn to determine how many shearers will be needed.
2. Location: The Shawnee people selected the Union County Fairgrounds in Anna, Illinois, because it is centrally located and the organization has a good relationship with the fair board. The building is free but the Shawnee Wool Pool does make an annual contribution to the junior sheep show.
3. Date: A date in April is usually chosen for the shearing because most producers have finished lambing by then and are ready to shear. While we recommend that producers shear before lambing, this is a real world situation and April seems to be the best time for most of their producers.
4. Sheep Shearers: The Shawnee people were able to contract with three shearers who live about 2 ½ hours away. As competent shearers are the most important ingredient to making the day go smooth, this is no place for someone just learning to shear. If the numbers of sheep to be shorn are enough, a minimum of two competent shearers is recommended. People learning to shear should be encouraged to attend and participate, as they can learn a great deal just by watching good shearers.
Inexperienced shearers may also shear a few sheep (if the main shearers agree), but should not be expected to contribute significantly. Even if shearers have to travel a distance, they will be attracted to a program such as this because they can shear a number of sheep without having to move during the day.
5. Help: Help is obtained from volunteers who bring their sheep in and any high school age producer that can be found. A member of the Shawnee group collects the money. Holding pens are available in the building for sheep to be sheared. This allows for producers to deliver and remove sheep at the same time. While holding pens are not absolutely necessary, it also allows the shearers to keep shearing and not wait for sheep to unload.
Because Foot Rot can be a concern with sheep using communal pens, producers should not be allowed to bring sheep with foot rot to the event. Those sheep should be isolated in other pens and shorn after the others.
6. Insurance: Insurance coverage is important for the protection of all involved. In this case, insurance comes from a blanket policy of the Illinois Lamb and Wool Producers. Anyone interested in holding a local shearing day should check with his or her state association.
The Shawnee Wool Pool is held in the same building in early June, and the association is able to store some of the shorn wool there until the pool. However, some producers take their wool home, either for spinning or to sell to another buyer. Not all shearing day locations will have the luxury of a wool pool.
Actually, who buys the wool can be a sticking point, as some shearers will want to purchase the wool. They may even refuse to shear unless they can buy. How the wool is to be sold must be determined by the coordinator, in conjunction with the shearers, before the shearing day occurs to eliminate problems. Depending whether a wool pool is held in the area or not, producers can be given the option to sell to the shearer, take the wool home either for spinning or to sell to another buyer, or have it saved at the location for the wool pool.
This “Shearing Day” program has been a success. In 2002, 14 producers had 99 sheep shorn and in 2003, approximately 12 producers had 151 sheep shorn. Shearing starts at 9AM and runs until all sheep are shorn.
The Union County Sheep Shearing Day is an example of producer involvement to solve a local problem. Surprisingly, the Shawnee Lamb and Wool Producers is a loose knit organization with only three or four people doing most of the planning, mailing, and coordinating. They are working to improve sheep production in their area regardless of the type or kind raised. They recognize they produce sheep first and have common goals, even if they do not produce the same breeds. Other groups can also form a program such as a sheep shearing day that fits the flocks in their area. For more information on developing a shearing day or a lamb pool, producers can contact A. Richard Cobb at (217) 333-7351 or