Saturday, November 9, 2013

Coating the sheep

I tell myself it’s like dressing a child. Head goes here, legs into the leg holes. But my self knows better. Dressing a sheep is nothing like dressing a child, not even a 150 pound child. Coating is enough of a challenge that if we didn’t earn a lot more money selling clean fleeces, I wouldn’t bother. But a clean fleece is worth $10 per pound. A fleece full of veggies, whether hay bits or weeds is worth around a dollar a pound. The extra work is definitely worth it. If I sold my fleeces to the shearer, he would sell it to a commercial woolen mill where they acid wash the fleeces to get rid of the veggies. But I sell my fleeces to individual spinners, felters and knitters and they would rather work with wool in its natural state – no acids, no bleaches, no veggies, nothing but wool and lanolin. So my sheep are coated from October through February when we shear them and my fleeces are wonderfully clean.

On the day we coat the sheep, we first put them into the barn. Lately, that’s been difficult as Winthrop doesn’t want us anywhere near his ladies. Once the sheep are corralled, we grab Winthrop’s harness, hold a bucket of corn in front of his nose and lead him back out of the barn, shutting him out. Only then can we work with the ewes.

Dave grabs the closest sheep and holds her against his legs. We inject her with a wormer and note in the barn log whether or not she has an orange crayon marking on her rump, evidence that she’s been bred. I pick out the most likely sized sheep coat and slip it over her head. That part is easy. Then we pull it down along her back. To fit well, the coat must hang down over her bottom by a couple of inches. If it fits, we wrestle her hind legs through the straps on the rear end of the coat. If we’re lucky, the coat fits perfectly. If we’re unlucky, the ewe backs over me, or runs Dave into the fence or we both end up on the ground.

Most coatings are somewhere in between the extremes. More often than not, when we release the sheep, it becomes obvious that her coat is too small (she has trouble walking) or too large (it hangs past her knees and she can easily step out of the straps) and we have to try a different size. Some sheep require two or three trials. The coats are various shades of beige, made in several different styles and embellished with denim patches where holes have worn in the fabric. Fortunately, we don’t have a mirror in the barn, so the ewes don’t complain about how their coats look. Coating would be really difficult if the sheep could tell us which patches suited their personalities or which coat style made them look fat. If we finish coating the sheep in a single day, we consider it a good day. And if they keep their coats on until shearing we know that we’ll have beautiful fleeces.

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