Thursday, March 2, 2006

Shearing of the Sheep

Shearing of the Sheep

“Let me help Gramps!” shouts grandsons Jess and Cole as they crawl over the fence. They revel in pushing the sheep down the alley to the shearers, and they are darn good help. They work hard and they know what to do. Ranching has always been a way of life for these 5 and 6 year old boys. They’ve been wrestling sheep since before they learned to tie their shoes. They’ve learned how to read the sheep. They know how the sheep is going to react and they know how to position themselves. If a sheep goes in a corner, eventually it is going to come out and as Jess says “you’re gonna get nailed if you don’t move!” It is fun to watch them learn. It lays the foundation for an understanding of animal behavior that will help to keep them safe should they have the opportunity to pursue their lifetime goal of becoming ranchers.

It took the shearing crew of 6 men just three hours to shear our 250 sheep yesterday. The shearers get paid by the number of sheep they shear and bucks count twice (triple if they have horns.) We have 9 bucks so our tally was 259. Over supper the men commented that they thought our ewes were pretty big for Targhee ewes. It was the end of the day and they had already sheared two other flocks that day. Maybe that had something to do with it!

Rick recalls one year when it took 30 days to shear his dad’s 1800 sheep because it rained every day. It was the year he was a freshman in high school. They were shearing in a remote area on a creek named for his great grandfather who homesteaded in Sweet Grass County just across the river from what is now the home place. The homestead was primitive. No water, no electricity. They would haul water from the creek and clean the place up the best they could and then Rick’s mom, Betty, would set about to cook for the crew of men. It was standard to provide American crews all their meals and coffee breaks.

The shearers would arrive early in June and set up their shearing plant run on a gas operated generator. Rick and his father, Robert Jarrett, would get up at 4:00 A.M. and sort all the lambs from the ewes. There was a little shed up there that would only hold about 100 sheep. Montana’s sheep shearers belong to a union and they would not start until 8:00 am and by that time it would be raining again. They would shear the little bunch in the shed and the others outside would be too wet so Rick and his dad would get up the next day and try all over. They would run the sheep through chute again and sort off the lambs. It was a lot of work. It did not just happen. But they had no choice. When sheared wet, sheep give off an ammonia smell that eats away at your lungs. Over a period of time it destroys the protective lining of your lungs and can cause what is called “shearers pneumonia.”

The fleeces were tied and tromped into big wool sacks, 30 to a sack. The corral was down in a draw so they’d roll the wool sacks on big poles to keep them out of the mud. They’d tarp the sacks every day to keep them dry. It took a 40 foot semi-truck to haul the wool and they transported the 50 or 60 sacks to the wool house in Big Timber when the shearing was done. Rick remembers pulling the sheep wagon across the creek after all that rain and before he made it to the other side there was water coming in through the floor boards of his truck.

Everything was wet and muddy and it was tough trying to feed a dozen men under those conditions…no refrigerator or electricity. Had to do chores at the home place and then travel the 15 miles up to the sheep camp every day to feed the dozen or so men. Six shearers, a tier and a tromper as well as a man branding sheep and three or four guys pushing the sheep to keep the same numbers in each pen. The rain was troublesome …but there was green grass and there was water that year. It was glorious!

After years of feeding a crew in these primitive conditions, Betty Jarrett said that was enough of that. The next year Crazy Mountain Sheep Company hired a Mexican crew to shear sheep. The Mexican crew came with their own cook and they did their own tieing and tromping so it required very little additional labor. They’d pull in to sheep camp and within 15 minutes they would have killed a sheep, skinned it and thrown it up on the hood of the old bus to age. They would kill a mutton every couple of days while they were working and that is what they ate.

There were no designated mealtimes; the cook would have tacos or a stew simmering on the campfire at all hours of the day. The machines never stopped. When a shearer went to take a break, somebody else would take his place. They would shear as fast as they could because they got paid by the head. And they would often get rough by the end of the day when they started getting tired. Making a suggestion that they take more care would simply get them on the fight. So Bobby would mention it once and if they did not slow down he would simply open the gates and let the sheep out. They pretty much figured out that they had to be careful if there were going to shear for Jarretts.

In the 1920’s and 30’s and 40’s Big Timber, Montana, was known as The Wool Capital of the World. The sheep industry was still in its heyday when our parents were alive, but those days are long ago and far away. Now the sheep numbers are in decline after years of low commodity prices and predators. Consequently we see the demise of the infrastructure of the sheep industry in the United States. Slowly there are fewer crews available to shear and fewer slaughter houses and less American lamb sold in grocery stores. It is a vanishing way of life.

The sheep industry was a magnificent industry that is slowly dieing. It is important for our grandkids to be a part of this while they can…staying home from school to help with shearing. Ranch work helps kids define their work ethic and builds character. Yesterday the kids made a difference in the workload and they certainly made it more entertaining. They may be the last generation of kids to remember when there was an American sheep industry. We need to be sure they know the stories of their granddad and his forefathers…not only telling the old stories but making new ones where the kids play a role.

When you stop to think about it that way, you realize why story telling is so important. It is all about remembering and sharing the ranch family traditions.