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Wool fibre production for dummies

How one manages the flock can make the difference between getting good fleece or getting ‘fleeced’

Randy Eros speaks with customers at the Manitoba Fibre Festival.  photo: Meghan Mast

Randy Eros, a shepherd from just outside Winnipeg, jokingly blames his wife when explaining why they are in the sheep business.

Eros and his wife began raising sheep more than 30 years ago — initially just for wool. “It’s my wife’s fault,” he told a workshop at the Manitoba Fibre Festival Sept. 6. “She’s a fibre artist and she was having a hard time finding good wool.”

But raising a flock for wool alone is expensive. As their herd grew, it only made sense to sell the less productive lambs for meat.

Today the couple, and their son, make their living off a 200-head Isle De France-Rideau Arcott-blend herd. The family, operating under the name Seine River Shepherds, sells meat and value-added wool.

Eros shared some of what he’s learned over the last several decades.

Hay can be your worst enemy

Choosing the right feeder is critical. Hay will embed into the wool, ruining that section of the fleece. Eros uses a feeder with diagonal slats. The sheep must turn their heads at an angle to reach the feed and then do the same once they finish. “When they have to turn their head they tend to drop the feed out of their mouth,” he said.

Providing enough space for feeding is also important. Squeezing in next to each other to access food can rip, weaken or even felt the wool. Eros recommends approximately a foot for every sheep when self-feeding. Sheep that are able to help themselves when they’re hungry won’t all crowd the feeder at the same time. Hand feeding, when the sheep are fed all at the same time, requires double the space.

Don’t abuse your pasture

Eros uses rotational grazing to prevent his paddocks from overgrazing.

Eros recommends, if possible, having sheep graze each section of pasture and having it cut for hay once a year. His sheep usually graze five to seven days before moving along, depending on the number of sheep and condition of the pasture.

Frequent rotation also minimizes parasites such as worms, lice and ked. Parasites cannot survive without a host so if the herd does not return for a long enough period, the eggs will hatch and die, breaking the cycle.

The importance of nutrition

A healthy sheep produces quality wool. How much feed an animal needs depends on a number of different factors, including the environment, how many lambs they’re going to have and how cold it is.

The best way to monitor a sheep’s health is through body condition scoring — feeling the spine on the back of the sheep near the loin. If a sheep’s spine is easily found, it likely needs to eat more.

Eros puts his ewes on a rising plane of nutrition before breeding because, he said, then they generate more eggs during ovulation and are more likely to have more lambs. They’re given less feed during early pregnancy and then more again for the later part of the pregnancy.

Most of the fetal growth occurs in the last six weeks of gestation, so it’s crucial the ewes get enough to eat during this time.

Wool is comprised of a complex group of amino acids, fat and calcium. To maintain a healthy fibre, sheep must consume minerals, particularly sulphur. Without sulphur a sheep’s wool will become brittle.

Eros tries to keep one-third of his flock black.
Eros tries to keep one-third of his flock black. Eros tries to keep one-third of his flock black.  Photo: Randy Eros
 photo: Randy Eros

Shear close to lambing

Right before a ewe gives birth all her energy goes to her growing lambs, compromising wool quality. The wool is at its weakest during lambing season so this is the ideal time to shear. By shearing at the weakest part, the overall tensile strength won’t be affected. Eros recommends shearing two to three weeks before lambing or immediately after. Wait too long after lambing and the little animals will be climbing all over their mom, contaminating the wool with dirt and debris.

Genetics matter

Wool traits are heritable. Usually if a sheep produces good-quality wool, its offspring will as well. The volume of wool can be improved in the next generation by using a different ram that produces more wool. Eros uses tags to monitor productivity. He cuts samples at shearing to compare the quality of wool. Animals that carry finer fibre further down the body are the better animals.

To determine the quality he assesses a variety of factors, including the sample length, fleece weight, fibre diameter, consistency throughout the fleece and crimp frequency — a tighter crimp is better.

Cull routinely

Sheep that don’t produce healthy wool are sold for meat.

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