This was a sidebar to my article, Wool It Be, appearing in the May-June 2014 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.
If you keep wool sheep, consider taking the extra steps it takes to produce high-quality fleeces. There’s a strong market for hand spinner fleeces, not to mention lots of cool things you can do with your own fleece, like exhibiting it at fairs and fiber shows; using it to spin your own yarn; and then using that yarn to knit, crochet, or weave things of beauty. But they all start with the quality fleece.
If you hope to market your fleece for top dollar, you should coat your sheep. Sheep covers, also called sheep coats, aren’t the type of canvas blanket or nylon body sleeve you’ve probably seen on club lambs at fairs and lamb shows and are they aren’t designed to keep sheep warm; their sole purpose is to keep wool clean. Sheep covers are made of lightweight, breathable, durable synthetic fabric and designed to cover the prime parts of a sheep’s fleece so that only its head, legs, belly and a little bit of butt stick out. They’re meant to be worn year round, though some shepherds coat their sheep only during hay-feeding season. Elastic inserts allow a coat to expand a bit as its wearers’ fleece grows longer, but most sheep need their covers exchanged for larger sizes at least three times a year.
Why bother? A coated sheep’s fleece stays cleaner; if it’s a colored sheep, the tips of its fleece won’t sun bleach and fade; and since all brands of commercial sheep covers are white or tan, they reflect summer heat and keep colored sheep cooler than their uncovered kin.
However, you’ll need a range of sizes to fit your flock through several changes and you’ll spend some time repairing rips and tears. And you’ll have to catch your sheep to change their covers. It’s a job; sheep aren’t keen on wearing clothing.
You can certainly sew your own sheep covers but breathable fabric is expensive and it’s often more cost-effective to buy ready-mades. Fortunately, good covers are durable; most last at least four years.
To fit a sheep with a cover, pull the cover’s front opening over its head, smooth the cover back across its body and feed its hind legs through two leg straps. Rocky Sheep Suits (see below) also come in a two-piece front, Velcro-secured model that makes dressing horned sheep a snap.
Even if you don’t coat your sheep, you can grow better fleeces by feeding from feeders that don’t drop hay on your sheep’s heads, by being careful not to accidentally sling hay or grain on sheep while feeding them, and by carefully checking your pastures, paddocks and barns on an ongoing basis, removing anything that might contaminate your sheep’s fleeces. Plastic baling twine and shredded fiber from poly tarps are major fleece contaminants. Small sticks, thistle debris and burdock burrs are bad news too. Also keep an eye out for unusual contaminants that not only ruin fleece but injure sheep, like short pieces of baling wire or barbed wire fencing.
Chopped straw and woods chips are comfy for sheep to lie on but easily work their way into fleeces. Long-stem straw or the hay your sheep pull out of their feeders are better beddings.
The most important factor, however, beyond keeping as much vegetable matter and junk out of your fleeces as possible, is to hire a competent shearer to shear your sheep. Find a shearer who takes time to shear to order, even if it costs a few more dollars per sheep. And once you find that shearer, treat him (or her) like royalty. You can’t produce marketable fleeces without him.
Rocky Sheep Company Sheep Suits
American-made sheep covers, including a horned sheep version
Matilda Sheep Covers
Sheep covers from Australia, available from North American agents