Suffering from a sheep-shearing shortfall

The Manitoba Sheep Association wants to increase the number
of shearers, but shearers say they need more sheep

The Manitoba Sheep Association wants government help to train new sheep shearers — but shearers already in the business say they can’t get enough work.

There are only about 3,000 breeding ewes and rams per shearer, said Heinz Krauskopf, one of nine shearers listed on the association’s website.

“That’s maybe 30 days’ work,” said Krauskopf, who lives near Austin and runs a 35-head flock. “There’s guys who go shearing abroad and in Western Canada who can’t get enough work here.”

Shearers charge about $3 to $4 per ewe for flocks of 100 or more, and a bit more for rams. That means they not only need other jobs, but also ones which allow them to get time off during the three-month-long spring shearing season, he said.

But many producers find it tough to get the service they need, especially if they need more than 100 sheep sheared in a day, and new entrants are needed because of the average age of existing shearers, said Herman Bouw, the sheep association’s chair.

And with out-of-season lambing gaining popularity, demand is rising because shearing also makes it easier for lambs to suckle, he said.

The association wants government assistance to create a training program for shearers, and would like to see the number of shearers double.

“Then we wouldn’t have to worry about whether we’re going to get our sheep shorn in time,” said Bouw, who runs a 300-head flock near Anola.

However, its funding request hasn’t yielded results so far. Moreover, the craft has traditionally been learned outside of classrooms and it’s not for everyone.

“It’s really, really hard work,” admits Bouw.

Louis Bisson, who runs a 50-head flock near Souris, came to the trade reluctantly, and in a roundabout way. After buying an old set of clippers from a retiring shearer, he practised on his own flock until word spread that he knew how to shear.

“When I started, I had no intention of shearing for other people,” said Bisson.

Winkler-based shepherd Vernon Wiebe learned the trade “behind the barn” after watching a DVD produced by Martin Penfold of Rural Route Video until it was indelibly etched into his brain. That, and working with top shearers, helped him master the trade.

“I don’t know how many times I watched that video. I can still see it,” he said with a laugh.

Would-be shearers need to be in good physical condition and able to learn how to do it correctly at top speed, said Wiebe, whose best day saw him shear upwards of 200 head.

“It’s not something that a guy in his 30s should even attempt,” said Wiebe.

On the other hand, starting too young is bad, too.

“There are guys in Australia who started too soon. You can tell who they are: their eyes are bugged out and their back is bent. And they stay that way.”

Lack of sheep in the province is the main reason there is a perceived shortage of shearers, because it forces many to find other lines of work to pay the bills, he said.

“Employers aren’t going to give you three months off to go shearing and you can’t do it on weekends,” said Wiebe.

Bisson, who was taking a day off from his busy shearing schedule, echoed that view.

“If they train a bunch more shearers, then nobody would have enough work to make even a half-decent living,” said Bisson, who added that a college- or university-based course is unlikely to attract much interest from would-be shearers. Formal training would be expensive, and add a further barrier to entry in a trade where equipment alone can cost as much as $5,000.

“I can’t see how anybody would want to go for a six-month course. I don’t see how that would fly,” he said.

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