Vernon Miller is looking to maximize the profitability from his sheep flock near Sugar Creek in Holmes County.
Miller is among the growing number of farmers in Ohio’s Amish communities looking to sheep production as a way to generate income with smaller acreage and less input than other types of livestock. Though the focus of his production is meat, he recently made a trip to Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative headquarters in Canal Winchesters to learn about what he can do to improve his wool production from his 90-ewe flock on 36 acres of pasture.
“I have been working on the breeding and feeding to maximize meat production,” he said. “I shear my own sheep. I enjoy it and I want to stay up to date with what is happening with the wool. I got more of an idea of what I need to do to get more out of my wool. You can’t just shear them and send it out.”
Miller has been working with sheep for almost 15 years. He has been putting more effort into maintaining the quality of his wool and better serving the end user with the product he provides from his flock and the other flocks in the area he shears.
“I just wanted to get a better idea what is going on after sheep shearing. From what I see, the biggest issue is that guys are not feeding properly to get better wool quality. A lot of guys see a sheep that looks good, but when you shear them you get a lot different sheep,” Miller said. “I feel it is important for wool quality if you have a good mineral. If something is wrong with the wool, I always ask if they feed mineral and most of the time they don’t. I think that is the key to start off right for wool quality.”
Wool is not generally the focus for many sheep producers because it only accounts for a small amount of the income for the operation, said Roger High, executive director of the Ohio Sheep Improvement Association.
“It could be 0% to 5% of the sheep farm’s income coming from wool. It depends on the type of sheep you have. If you have a hair type breed, there is obviously no wool value. For breeds with fine wool, the value is higher,” High said. “Most of the wool from Ohio is used domestically here in the U.S. Much of it goes to within 100 miles of a Charleston, South Carolina production facility. A lot of the infrastructure of the wool industry is in that area where it is processed. One of the most important end uses is the U.S. Military as mandated by the Berry Amendment. All of the wool in military uniforms has to be American. There are also sock and scarf making companies down in that area.”
With some simple management changes, sheep producers can do more to maximize the value of their wool.
“One of the things that we encourage is once a year shearing so we get a good three-inch staple length. Most of our sheep breeds can produce that in about a year’s growth. You need to keep it clean by keeping burrs out of your pastures and barns. Don’t throw hay or feed over top of your sheep to keep the fleeces clean,” High said. “We discourage the use of polyurethane baling string because it is a major source of contaminant in the wool industry. It can take a valuable flock of wool sheep and make their wool much less valuable.”
There are some things that can be done when shearing the sheep as well.
“When shearing, don’t shear them off wet,” High said. “You also need to separate out the bellies away from the rest of the fleece so when it gets to the warehouse you can gain a few cents a pound.”
Drew Cable grades the wool at Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative and looks at a number of different factors in the process.
“I look at the color of the wool to make sure it is not too yellow. If it is too yellow it goes into our defect bin. I also check the grade, length and strength of the wool,” Cable said. “With wool coming from out west, the dirt and sand gets blown into the wool and makes it drier with more tendency to break. For the most part, we usually get pretty good wool and there is only a small percentage that is defective. After we
grade it, it gets baled and shipped to different textile mills. They extract the lanolin to make different products like lotions or cosmetics. They take the wool after it is washed and card it and spin it to make clothing and other products.”
Dave Rowe, General Manager for Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association, said the wide variety of end uses for wool from the Midwest has held up demand.
“There is still good demand for Midwestern wool — with the short supply there is a demand for everything — but obviously there are differences in the price,” Rowe said. “You’re not going to find much Midwestern wool in suits. It will be more geared toward lower end apparel because our wool tends to be coarser. Lower grade wool goes for blankets and carpets. We do have some finer wools that we can get moved into the appropriate places.”
The cooperative has 10,000 farmer owners marketing 6 million pounds of wool from 23 states. The end quality of that product depends upon year-round care for the sheep.
“A shearer can’t show up and make something better than it is,” Rowe said. “Do you have briars and thistles in your pastures? Are you shearing your sheep wet? Are you feeding round bales and letting the sheep bore through the middle of them and get hay chaff down their backs? Keeping your wool clean maximizes the price that that quality of wool is going to bring. The key is to maximize what you have. Many times we hear producers say that they don’t manage their wool because it isn’t worth anything. Most producers can increase their wool check 100% if they would just get their wool out of the defect grade and into the clear-wool grade, but you have to manage for it 365 days a year, not just the day the shearer shows up.”
Rowe offers the following wool management tips:
• Staple length can be affected by shearing once a year at 12-month intervals. This will provide a three-inch staple, which is used by the largest number of mills.
• The nutritional level of the sheep throughout the year affects staple strength. Placing sheep under stress due to reduced feed intake or excessive worms can cause a weak spot or general weakness in the fiber strength.
• Staple strength is affected by physical stress on the sheep. One of the most critical times in the ewe’s life is lambing. A fever at lambing can place a break in the fiber, which causes the wool fiber to break at a specific point along its length. This break means that there are two pieces of fiber on each side of the break and neither one of the lengths is three inches. Shear the sheep prior to lambing.
• Clipping pastures or shearing before the ewes come to the barn for winter feeding will reduce the amount of hay chaff and contamination to the fleece.
• At shearing, management needs to occur before the shearer gets to the farm. Don’t bed the barn the night before shearing is to take place. This straw will cling to the wool and ruin an otherwise useful clip.
• Under no circumstances should wet sheep be shorn. Even a little dampness will allow wool to turn yellow, stain and mildew.
• Keep the shearing floor clean.
• Bag wool one fleece at a time so it can be graded. The preferred packaging material is clear plastic wool bags. Never bag wool in plastic feed sacks. This contaminates wool with polypropylene and this cannot be separated completely at grading.
With these management practices in place, if sheep producers want to further maximize their wool dollar, they need to look at genetics.
“Producers need to decide if their wool is important and then select the right rams. You can improve you wool clip if that becomes a goal for your flock, but it will take some management to do it,” Rowe said. “If black-faced sheep fits the goal for your flock, you are already limited to what you can do with your fleece. Polypays are versatile and popular for commercial producers both in terms of wool and meat. White-faced ewes and black-faced bucks work well because you can get the best of both worlds with quality wool from the ewes and growth and muscle from the bucks.”