Shearers sharp at stock show

"Dying breed" still indispensable to wool production

DENVER - Marvin Fales has been shearing sheep since 1958 and says he has shorn probably half a million of the woolly animals since then. He is a short man with sharp eyes, mussed hair, scarred hands and a weightlifter's build.

Fales, a 70-year-old from Torrington, Wyo., was the oldest competitor in the 31st annual International Professional Sheep Shearing Contest at the National Western Stock Show on Saturday. He last won it in 1978. He doesn't lift weights.

Sheep shearing
Mike Peter, of Belfry, Mont., participates in the 31st annual International Professional Sheep Shearing Contest at the National Western Stock Show on Saturday. Erin O`Neill, 13, of Englewood, warms up Saturday before the Colorado Rocky Mountain Fiddle Championship at the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Mark Leffingwell/Daily Camera

"No, I lift sheep," he joked.

People in places like Boulder don't think much about how the wool in business suits, pool table felt and socks distances itself from sheep. It does not leap off.

Despite mankind's ability to make laparoscopic cameras and an International Space Station, wool is still shaved off by hand.

The stock show's sheep-shearing competition is a showcase for the best sheep shearers in the United States, men who can take the fuzz off 200, 300 or more sheep in a single day. The professionals can denude an ewe in less than two minutes, bent over and contorting the docile and clearly shocked animals in ways that might impress a yogi.

It looks random, just as shearing sheep looks easy when pros that shear 10,000 sheep a year are doing it. It is not random.

As he watched an early heat of four of the 29 competitors, Fales explained that it should take 60 licks to shear a sheep.

You start with the belly and crotch - that wool, generally filthy, gets separated from the good stuff. Then there's the hind leg and the neck, which is full of skin folds and tricky to shear.

The most fertile field of wool, on the back of the animal, comes off during the "long blow," a sweeping stroke from tail to head. Bronzed wool pours off the animals like peeled skin from an apple. Then comes the last front shoulder and "pay side," and finally the "pay leg," with the sheep's head between the shearer's legs. It's called that because that's when you get paid, Fales said.

Shearers get paid anywhere from $2.40 to $4 per head. Some travel the world and shear as many as 30,000 animals in a year. Fales said he once averaged 173 sheep a day for 33 straight days, "big ewes with lambs in them." Such animals can weigh 300 pounds. He said it was exhausting.

Several judges were involved in scoring, which is comprised of several key elements: time, absence of second cuts in the fleece, the condition of fleece, the manner of handling the sheep, absence of cuts on the sheep and the appearance of the shorn sheep. Competitors were given one warm-up sheep before the timed effort with four roughly 140-pound lambs.

A top shearer can finish all four in six minutes. The shorn wool looks like a sheepskin rug until balled into the size of a laundry basket.

Points are deducted for various reasons, some infractions being worse than others.

"They could be disqualified if they damage the reproductive ability of the animal," said Pam Barker, who announced the competition for sponsor Oster Professional Products.

The metal shearers Oster and others use look like barber clippers with fangs. They attach to electric motors via gearshafts and sound like hedge clippers.

The 207 lambs sheared in the competition came from Mike Harper's feedlot in Eaton, where he currently has about 20,000 sheep.

Harper called shearers "a dying breed."

U.S. sheep production peaked in 1884 at 51 million heads, or roughly the U.S. human population at the time. Today, about 6 million sheep are raised in the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service says.

New Zealand has 39 million sheep, or about 10 per person; Australia has about 100 million sheep.

Doug Rathke, of Hutchinson, Minn., won the National Western Stock Show event last year and competed in the world championships, coming in last among 26 competitors. Australians and New Zealanders dominated that event.

"It would be like taking an American basketball team to New Zealand or Australia," he said. "We would just murder them."

Rathke came in seventh on Saturday; Loren Opstedahl, of Piedmont, S.D., won.

Fales, who nicked one of his male lambs in a particularly vulnerable spot, placed 23rd. He didn't seem to mind.

"I just came down to check the prices, see the guys," he said.