It’s sheep shearing season across Montana and the Northern Plains as ranchers get ready for lambing. Renewed interest in wool and high market prices mean learning to better sort wool is a potentially lucrative skill for Montana’s sheep producers.
The buzz of clippers mingles with the subdued baaing of 600 sheep being shorn in a metal sheep shed at the Montana State University Agricultural Experiment Station in Norris.
Outside, the snow-topped Tobacco Root Mountains rise to the west. Inside, customers -- all pregnant ewes -- queue in a chute wearing their warmest winter coats. The half-dozen professional sheep shearers pull them one by one onto their plywood platform, tip them on their rumps and clutch them between their knees. They can strip a sheep’s fleece in about 2 minutes. Below them are students who collect the fleeces tossed down by the shearers.
Whitehall sheep rancher Pollann Bruner is one of them. She’s watching another student gather up a fleece to fling onto the skirting table, a slatted merry-go-round that helps sorters pick through the wool.
"Where that bottom part is too low and she didn't get it in her hands," Bruner explains. "It's going to catch and then instead of being with the whole side up, it's going to be, unless she gets a really good swing on, this is going to see catch."
Tossing a fleece, like throwing out a tablecloth, takes practice. Students here are part of a two-day wool handling school held last month by the university’s Sheep Extension Program. They’re learning how to sort, package and label wool as it’s shorn. MSU Sheep Specialist Brent Roeder says it’s a way to add value at market.
"There's a very large demand for wool right now," Roeder says. "People are really looking for a sustainable source verified product if they can find it. They’re tired of buying plastic stuff from overseas and really looking for a high quality American made product that that keeps them warm and provides some value and incentive back to America and their consumers and producers."
Montana is tied with Wyoming for having the most valuable annual crop of wool in the United States: $2.50 a pound grease, meaning uncleaned. Roeder says last year’s wool prices were record high, up 30 percent from the year before. That’s in part because Australian sheep producers have reduced their numbers by about 50 million head over the last couple of decades.
"That’s really benefited Montana and the Northern Great Plains," Roeder says. "Right now we are the epicenter of fine wool or quality wool production in the United States. And so a lot of it is why we do these wool handling schools is basically to maintain that quality of product and production that Montana producers have. We have the genetics here, but wool has to be put up properly and packaged properly and it competes on an international basis, so we want to make sure that we're maintaining that quality here in Montana."
The parameters are set loosely by a small handful of local wool buyers based on feedback they get from US and international textile mills. Wool is priced by class, which is measured using what’s called the Micron System.
"The wool buyers basically make some recommendations on a cut off for a micron," Roeder says. "They might say, based on the market conditions and the demand for wool and the price, looking at the futures market, you should try to pull anything out 25 micron and courser and put it in a separate line because the values not going to be there compared to the finer wool."
Wool that fine wicks, breathes and washes. It’s natural and increasingly American. American wool producers, many in Montana, have invested heavily in breeding sheep with finer wool and manufacturers have developed new ways to wash wool to make it softer, thinner, ideal for next-to-skin clothing lines. Instructor Cheryl Shultz has been classing wool for years.
"They actually take a sample from each sheep back to the Wool Lab on the MSU campus and measure the fiber diameter because we want smaller fibers that are more comfortable next to the skin," Shultz says.
Shultz watches students fling fleeces onto the spinning skirting table, plucking out dirty bits and what's called second cuttings – the forgotten bits of fleece that cling to a shorn sheep and are removed last. It takes each just a few seconds and then there’s another fleece and another and another.
"So what we put in the wool bail is our best quality wool," she says. "The skirting process that we're teaching here today is the final step to add some value because we can even remove some of the sweaty locks that are under the front and rear legs of the sheep. We can remove any stained wool. If there's a belly that's damp, we can take it out."
Student Pollann Bruner is super attentive. She knows she’ll be able to use what’s she’s learned at the wool handling school to get more value out of her sheep.
"If I have less debris and less short cuttings in my wool, my price goes up," she says. "It really does improve what you get if you cleaned it up a bit. When I get a core sample done, I've been at about 50 percent debris and oils and things like that, and I think I could improve that factor."