Fleece in frame: Taking a look behind the clippers on a sheep farm

Photographer Phil Hossack captures a staple skill for any sheep producer — shearing

Fleece in frame: Taking a look behind the clippers on a sheep farm

Sheep-shearing season has a special historical note on the farm of Wayne and Marie McDonald, just a little north and west of Cartwright in southwestern Manitoba. It is, after all, how they met.

Marie McDonald’s family had got into sheep when she was a teenager, leading her to take a job as a sheep shearer and spending 10 years working with herds across Manitoba and Saskatchewan and into Alberta. Wayne McDonald, meanwhile, started raising sheep in the early 2000s, a livelihood that brought him in contact with Marie’s job, and that the pair continued after they were married.

Today, sheep are the biggest part of the McDonalds’ operation, along with a direct-marketed meat business focused on grass-fed beef and pork. The family does offer some of its own lamb for variety, Marie McDonald said, but most of their sheep are marketed to the east, courting better prices in Ontario.

Their meat is produced “as regeneratively as possible,” she also said.

Land is managed with rotational grazing, and the couple has committed parcels of it to agreements through Ducks Unlimited to ensure that land is not worked up.

“Partially it’s because we think the animals are healthier and happier, and partially because we’re preserving the ground,” McDonald said.

It’s a model successful enough to support the couple and their two children, five-year-old Ethan and nine-year-old Emma, as a full-time farm family, unlike the estimated 44 per cent of Canadian farmers who seek at least some work off farm, according to the last federal census of agriculture gathered in 2016.

“We feel we’re doing pretty well financially,” McDonald said. “The sheep are a big part of that.”

As the clippers come out in mid-May, however, it’s not about the meat. It’s about the wool.

Like sheep producers across the province, this time of year marks the point where the McDonald herd is relieved of their winter coats — although for most producers in Canada, shearing is more about animal wellness than economic gain.

Wool is not typically an income driver, organizations like the Manitoba Sheep Association have said, and sales are generally more about recovering the cost of shearing.

Two paid shearers, Clifford Metheral out of Nokomis, Sask., and Stacey Rosvold of Garland, Man., were called in to help this year, while both McDonald children are also on hand, since COVID-19 has moved their schooling to the home.

It is the second year that Rosvold, a seven-year shearing veteran who typically shears around 7,000 sheep and 200 alpacas a season, has been hired by the McDonalds, while Metheral has a much longer history with the farm. The seasoned sheep shearer comes with 50 years of experience, he said, including 20 on the McDonald farm.

The McDonalds are among the reduced list of farms he returns to, despite backing away from the business. Today, he might shear 10,000 sheep a year, he said, about half of his count a few years ago. This year, COVID-19 has added yet another complication, such as in one instance where shearing dates had to be pushed back as Metheral awaited the results of a COVID-19 test.

For their herd, the whole process takes up about four days of their time, according to Wayne McDonald. Between the family and hired shearers, about 1,100 sheep will pass through the clippers and back out with their summer look.

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