Are you marketing your wool to handspinners or would you like to try? A clean fleece will certainly catch a customer’s eye; but minimizing the amount of vegetable matter (VM) in the wool requires some work throughout the year, not just at shearing time. During the spring and summer you’ve probably been ridding your fields of thistles and burrs – the handspinner’s bane. Now fall is here and winter’s around the corner. That means many of you will be housing your sheep indoors at least part of the time and if you’re not already feeding hay you soon will be. Bedding and hay can work their way right into a fleece and ruin it if you’re not careful. An extra step you can take to keep fleeces clean is to use wool covers. They are a great asset and many handspinners will pay extra money for a covered (or coated) fleece.
Barn vs. Pasture
Sheep are usually healthier and their fleeces are cleaner when pastured, but many sheep are barn-kept for different reasons, ranging from lambing to illness to protection from predators. When choosing bedding for your sheep it’s important to choose an absorbent material that won’t become imbedded in the wool. Long-stem straw or wasted hay is best; but definitely say, “No” to sawdust, shavings and chopped straw. Aside from irritating a sheep’s respiratory system they become imbedded in the wool very quickly.
There are two main things to remember when feeding if you want to ensure a clean fleece. First, don’t feed hay from above. Traditional hay mangers that are found at most supply stores hold the hay at or above head level. When sheep eat from this type of manger, pieces of hay fall to the ground or, more often, on other sheep.
Feeding hay on the ground can eliminate this problem but many people advise against this practice. Hay can become contaminated with parasites when placed on the ground. Others (like myself) find that their sheep simply won’t eat hay once it has touched ground.
You can find plans for many different low hay mangers online. One I found was very easy to build and only required plywood, a hog panel and 2 x 4’s for materials. Another way to feed hay is along the fence line. At ground level attach 2 – 2 x 6’s (one on top of the other) on the inside of the fence posts and leave about 6”-8” open above. Attach another 2 x 6 on the outside of the fence posts and finish the rest of the fence to your desired specifications. The sheep will be able to stick their heads though the open space to eat the hay on the outside of the fence line.
Secondly, it is important to allow adequate feeding space for each sheep. Rams should have about 12” of space at the hay manger or feeding trough. Ewes need 16”-20” of space each; and lambs need 9”-12” each. When overcrowding occurs at the feeders some sheep can be forced to squeeze between or under others thereby getting littered with hay or possibly grain. In addition to a dirty fleece, other sheep may try to eat the hay or grain out of their neighbor’s wool, resulting in bare patches.
Do you want extra protection for your fleeces? Wool covers are a great way to keep wool in pristine condition. Most sizes are available for about $20 each or less and this money can be made back with the first shearing. In addition to keeping VM, bugs and dirt out of the fleece, wool covers can reduce tippy-ness, sunbleaching and the wearing of wool from rubbing. (Tunis owners don’t have to worry about sunbleaching as much as natural-colored breed owners.)
With a little extra care and work this fall and winter you’ll be sure to have a cleaner fleece at shearing time. If you combine this with good skirting you’ll be able to market your wool to handspinners in your area or across the country. Why not enter your best fleece in the Tunis Wool Show in May? I hope to see your wool there!