Hidden Valley Farm & Woolen Mill

Quality Sheep and Wool Products by a Family Farmer in Valders, Wisconsin, USA

Sustainable and Ethical Farming Practice
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Published: Saturday, May 28, 2011 | By: Carol Wagner
Welcome to our newly redesigned Hidden Valley Farm & Woolen Mill website!  We've added a shopping cart feature to our website, so you can order your favorite items right from our website.  We're looking forward to continuing working with you and meeting new friends and customers through our website.  

Let us know what you think about this website by leaving us comments below.  Thank you!

Sheep Shearing Part 1

Published: Saturday, May 28, 2011 | By: Carol Wagner

Written by: Elizabeth Victor

Sheep Shearing at Hidden Valley Woolen Mill (March 8th - 10th, 2010)

Kathy pulled out her "Get out of School Free" card so she and I headed up to Valders to help with shearing at Hidden Valley Woolen Mill.  Carol and Paul Wagner, the owners, have a flock of about 280 Coopworth Sheep.  Most of these are ewes, bred for both their wool and their meat.  They also have two woolen mills, build around the turn of the Century, that they use to process their wool into various products and to do custom carding for others.  But on Monday the 8th all the attention was in the barn because the shearer was in town and ready for business!

Work started at a comfortable 8:00 - 8:30 am preceded by coffee and conversation.  We met Paul and Carol and the other workers:  David the shearer, Laurie, Cathy, and Joe at the house and proceeded to the barn where the sheep had been brought in from pasture and were waiting for sheering.  It was a beautiful warm morning promising to be in the 40s with plenty of sunshine.  The snow was melting and the ground was quite soggy.

Inside the barn it was quiet and cool.  The dark of the barn was illuminated by rows of lightbulbs mounted to the barn beams and at each end of the barn were bright squares of light where the spring sun shone in through the windows.  The barn had been set up for the shearing: a ~5x5 ft piece of particle board had been set out as a shearing platform.  Bright spotlights which also provided heat had been set up over the platform.  A wool skirting table (chicken wire over a frame) had been set up on plastic barrels and placed close to the platform.

The sheep had been segregated by color, age and "sexual orientation" - pregnant ewes, wethers, and rams.  There was even a vasectomized ram.  A week or two before they breed the ewes, this "teaser" ram is put in with the ewes and allowed to "shoot blanks" to make the ewes more receptive to pregnancy.  The pregnant white ewes were the first group to be shorn, after that were the colored ewes, followed by the rams.  I helped Carol and Paul Monday and Weds. so missed the shearing of the colored ewes.  The sheep were loaded up in gated "chutes" and their coats removed prior to shearing.  In the picture below, you can see Joe bending over to remove the coats from the ewes waiting in the chutes.  Cathy, in the red jacket, was in charge of weighing and recording the weight and condition of each fleece, as well as other information regarding each sheep.  David the shearer can be seen putting a new blade on his shears.  Just to the right of him is the beam on which he has put his equipment.

 

His shears are electric and the motor, blades and other equipment are mounted on a plank that he takes from farm to farm.  At each location, he straps his plank onto a beam using rope and several different lengths of 2X4s.  The shears are turned on by pulling a stiff cord and shut off by knocking the cord.  He spend some time showing Laurie his blades:  The bevels vary to accommodate different shearing conditions.  When the sheep is warm the lanolin in the wool is fairly liquid and shearing goes quickly and when it is colder, the shearing is more difficult so a different blade is used.  David does his own sharpening and has altered the bevel angles to his shearing style.  He wears special leather shoes allow him to roll sideways on his feet and still maintain contact with the floor and probably help prevent him from slipping on the buildup of warmed lanolin on the platform.

I was given a broom and told to keep the shearing platform free of wool scraps, bedding, and second cuts that might get mixed into the wool fleece.

Sheep Shearing Part 2

Published: Saturday, May 28, 2011 | By: Carol Wagner

Written by: Elizabeth Victor

David's shearing moves are a well practiced dance. He uses his body to keep the sheep in place: tucking feet behind his legs and heads under his arms, and moving the sheep from one position to another by stepping forwards or backwards, and shifting his weight.

When David is ready, a gate on the chute is opened and Joe pushes the waiting sheep out of the chute. David grabs the sheep, turns it around and flips it onto it's rump into the shearing position. Sheppards "steer" sheep by their tails. Joe was learning how to handle sheep, so during a break, David explained to him that if you pull up on the tail, you risk breaking it so you "goose" the sheep by putting your hand around it's tail and squeezing it. He also added "Don't worry if she pees on you, it washes off". In the photo above, the sheep is a ram.

The first swipe with the shears is along the left side of the sheep's "chest" then down to the belly. When the belly wool is shorn, it is thrown off to the side - it is a very low grade wool and full of dirt. I picked up the cast off belly wool and put it aside to be sold later for rug yarn.

After the belly wool is removed, he works his way to the inner part of the back legs, anus, and tail, then shears the left rump (left most photo below). If the sheep is a ram, the wool is carefully shorn off the scrotum. The wool around the rump and back legs of a sheep is called the "britch" wool and is discarded in the skirting process because is is of lower quality, dirty and weathered. My job was also to remove "tags" of dung clinging to the "britch" wool around the sheep's anus. Dung tags can get very big and heavy - larger than the size of a grapefruit. Fortunately, Carol and Paul's sheep were very well taken care of so I didn't have to remove a single tag.

After the britch wool is removed, the sheerer untucks the sheep's head from under his arm and shears the "top knot" off its head. Then, in one swift step forward with his left foot, flips the wool sheared from the sheep's left leg and rump forward, and moves the sheep onto it's rump so it's neck wool can be shorn. The wool around the shoulders of a sheep is the thickest, highest quality part of the fleece. He swipes his shears up the neck and under the chin then pulls that beautiful neck wool apart and pushes it to the left side of the sheep's neck so he can shear the rest of the neck and shoulders. The center photo above on the left shows him making the first swipe up the neck, and the right hand photo shows the flap of wool pushed to the left side of the neck.

After the left side of the neck is sheared, he lowers the sheep and begins shearing the left side and back.

He makes long sweeping cuts from the rump up to the head with his shears and the wool falls away, cut side up, like a blanket, revealing the true color and quality of the wool. The warmer it is, the more liquid the lanolin is and the shears cut like butter. This is where the skirters and spectators all stop to gawk..... Carol and Paul have carefully bred their Coopworths for wool with a high luster and silky hand and this is evident as the fleeces come off the sheep. They coat their sheep to keep dirt and chaff out of the wool. Coating the sheep also prevents "weathering" of the tips and keeps the wool free of vegetable matter. Removing those coats looked difficult. Joe had to bend over the backside of the sheep crammed in the chute to remove the coat strap out from under it's back legs - those sheep certainly didn't want to lift up their legs!

After as much wool as he can reach in this position is sheared, he pulls the sheep up and starts along the sheep's right shoulder and leg.

After the right shoulder and front leg is shorn, he moves the sheep into the last position and finishes shearing down the right side ending with the outer portion of the right leg. The sheep's head is now pointed toward the back of the barn where the shorn sheep are munching on fodder. When the shearer lets it go, it takes off to joins it's friends.

At this point two of the skirters gather up the fleece and place it on the skirting table. The fleece is placed on the skirting table outer (or "tip") side up which involves some kind of flipping onto the skirting table. This is my chance to sweep the platform before the next sheep is let out of the shoot.

Sheep Shearing Part 3

Published: Saturday, May 28, 2011 | By: Carol Wagner

Written by: Elizabeth Victor

If you watch shearing demonstrations, the shearer gathers up the shorn fleece in his arms and throws it into the air for the crowd. The fleece magically unfolds in the air and then floats down to the ground, tip side up, in perfect shape. Weds afternoon, with smaller fleeces at a different farm, David taught me how to do this: when you look down at the pile of wool on the skirting floor, the front of the fleece is nearest you and the back side of the fleece is closest to the shearers post. It is easy to see where the right rear leg wool is.....this is was the last part shorn and it extends, in the shape of a leg, out to the right. This can be seen in the right photo above - it is the scruffy wool in the right hand lower corner of the photo. The left leg, shorn early, is hidden under the big lump of wool and is harder to find; you have to reach way under the wool to find it. He taught me to grab the right leg wool by the tip side, reach under and find the back leg and grab it by the tip side, then scrunch the wool together, grab the rump part with your thumbs, then swoop your arms across the sides of the wool and gather it all up to your chest. You stand up straight, look out into the distance over the skirting table, and then throw the whole lump of wool out, then pull the back legs toward you, let go and watch it fall onto the skirting table tip side up! Needless to say, I was not very good at this and even after spending some hours practicing, I wasn't able to come up to speed.

The skirters, Kathy, Laurie, and Carol, are all handspinners, so the comments from the skirting table were all about the wool; crimp, luster, fineness, coarseness, color and staple length. David would take a break from his shearing to check out a particularly fine or unusual fleece he had just sheared. Carol would occasionally call out to Cathy, who was recording weights, asking for a tag number of a particular sheep and then comment on the breeding of that sheep. In the picture below, David is checking out the fleece on the skirting table. Kathy (also in a red jacket), Carol (right) and Laurie (left) are skirting. Cathy is hidden by Joe. The pen to the right contains belly wool. Joe is waiting by the chutes, probably a little overwhelmed by these chatty middle aged women gawking at wool.....

Each fleece is graded during skirting. The skirters remove all the unusable wool and chuck it under the skirting table. This includes the short bits, chaff, tags, and the leg and britch wool. They also remove the wool not covered by the coats but this wool is placed into the plastic barrels for additional skirting later. When this is done, they fold the fleece toward the center, skirting the underside as they go. The fleece is then bundled into a clean sheet draped over a bushel basket (seen to the left of the skirting table in the picture above) and tied up. Cathy weighs the fleece, records the weight and grade in a notebook and then adds a notecard with the sheep number and weight to the bundled wool. The bundled fleeces are then moved into separate areas based on grade and use.

The best fleeces are heavily skirted and will be sold to handspinners. The remaining fleeces will be graded and used at the mill. Carol dyes the better wool and makes it into roving for handspinners or has it made into yarn at a spinnery. She also dyes the lesser quality wool and makes this into roving for braided rugs or batts to be used for felting. Nothing is wasted; the wool scraps under the skirting table will be composted.

Here are the naked "ladies". You can see how pregnant they are. Carol and Paul waited about three weeks longer this year to shear so the ewes were pretty round. David said he could feel lambs in a few of the ewes and noted that a few were very close to lambing. In fact, we had a surprise on Monday. Carol heard some bleating and popped her head into another part of the barn. She yelled out to Paul, "Paul, we have lambs!". Kathy and I went to check it out and sure enough, there was a dark ewe that had just given birth to twins and was laying down. Paul popped his head around the corner just as another set of legs appeared; he grabbed the third lamb and gave it a gentle pull and placed it next to the ewe. Cool! This is the first time I had ever seen anything give birth. The ewe immediately got up and attended to her lambs. Paul swabbed antibiotic on the umbilical area of each lamb.

There was one large lamb, a medium lamb and then a very tiny lamb and in just a short time they were up and walking, following their Mom, except the tiny lamb was having difficulties keeping up. Paul put them into a pen and hooked up a heat lamp. At the end of the day Monday, the ewe was shorn. She had a beautiful fleece that Carol cold have sold for handspinning but because of afterbirth she gave it to Kathy. We found out later the tiny lamb was stepped on by it's mom and died a little later, probably from internal injuries.

There were many breaks during the day and a nice lunch with a selection of desserts brought by Kathy and Laurie. We had turkey sandwiches and soup from Carol and Paul's turkeys, potato salad and two pies from Kathy, and cookies and chocolate cake from Laurie. Shearing went slower Monday than on Tuesday and Wednesday so the skirters had some lulls in which they could have a good chat. Folks stopped by for short visits or to take care of business with Paul and Carol. Joe's father, pictured below, came on Weds. Paul isn't in these pictures; he hung out in the back of the barn, attending to the sheep, doing barn chores, and moving sheep into the chutes with instructions for Joe.

At the end of the day, the bundled fleeces stockpiled in the barn (below left) were loaded into the back of the truck and moved up to the mill or Carol's back porch for storage.

It seemed like there was wool everywhere! Carol set aside 4 fleeces for her personal use and later exclaimed, "What was I thinking?". There is a lot of work ahead processing all that wool! As a perk for helping, we each got to choose a fleece hot off the back of the sheep! I chose a very dark grey fleece from one of the rams. Laurie is a fiber artist and I learned that she skirts for other farmers in exchange for fleeces. She uses the fleeces to make beautiful sculptures, felt, and handspun yarns. Not a bad way to acquire fleeces!

This report was a little long and a little technical, but I hope you liked it anyway. I will end this report with this picture of Carol, taken at the skirting table Weds showing off a particularly nice fleece.