As a sheep flips from its back to its front legs and scrambles out the small door of a trailer, it’s as much as 20 pounds lighter than when it entered a few minutes before.
“Just like everyone gets a haircut,” said Kip Krebs, ranch manager of Krebs Sheep Company.
It’s sheep-shearing season, and in about two days, workers will shear about 2,800 sheep at the Krebs Sheep Company before moving on to another operation to repeat the process. The company will then send about 100 bales of wool to Pendleton Woolen Mills, as they’ve been doing for more than 70 years.
Krebs Sheep Company is one of a few large operations in Eastern Oregon. They raise Targhee and Rambouillet sheep, and Suffolk-cross rams. The business has been in the family for four generations. Kip Krebs, 28, was busy on Tuesday, moving bales of wool and loading a truck, and supervising the workers as they herded and sheared sheep. His father, Skye, was outside helping with herding, and his mother and wife do the books. The family lives on a ranch tucked in the hills of northeast Gilliam County, just down the road from the pens where they shear sheep.
But the rest of those working at Krebs during shearing season live a more nomadic lifestyle.
“In another month I’ll have three of these crews on the road,” said Bernie Fairchild.
Fairchild travels from his home in Buhl, Idaho, each year with a crew of employees comprised mostly of men from Uruguay, in the U.S. on work visas. The crew does everything, including shearing, grading, and packing the wool. They work for about eight hours a day for two or three days at each ranch — and then move onto the next one.
The workers spend January through June in the U.S., covering seven western states — Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. In a 12-month period, Fairchild said the crew will shear about 310,000 head of sheep. He said it’s hard to find American workers who will take that job.
“No Americans want to do it anymore,” he said. “It’s too hard of work.”
He said in the states he works in, there are likely less than 10 crews that work shearing season. He said it’s been difficult to get government approval for workers to come to the U.S.
“Thank God they let us (bring workers in),” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t have a job.”
Bryann Gonzalez has been working as a sheep shearer for nine years.
“I started when I was 16 years old, with a friend,” he said in Spanish. “It’s difficult, especially if the animal is not calm.”
Gonzalez said he works in the U.S. and Uruguay, although he worked as a shearer in Spain for one year.
Krebs also employs four full-time employees as sheep herders. The four men, all brothers, are Peruvian. They have worked for Krebs for more than a decade, and live in the U.S. on work visas, staying in trailers on the Krebs property.
John Balderson, an Idaho resident who runs Balderson Shearing Company, has been traveling around to sheep ranches with his trailer for decades.
“This trailer has one million, 30 thousand miles on it,” he said.
The workers aren’t the only ones who move around. Krebs said the sheep get trucked to several different places throughout the year. They start the year on the ranch in Gilliam County, where they lamb. In late April or May, they’ll be trucked to Wallowa County. In July or August, the lambs will be sold to a livestock company in Colorado, and the adults will be brought to irrigated grass or alfalfa circles in Umatilla and Morrow County.
The sheep were relaxed as workers turned them from side to side, reaching their undersides with a razor. Shearer Hank Little said there’s a standard pattern that all shearers use, but they sometimes get anxious when shearers get to the sensitive areas.
“The most difficult part? What he’s doing right there,” Little said, pointing to the worker next to him, who was shearing the sheep around its udder.
They leave about a quarter-inch of fleece on the sheep, but shearing removes the sheep’s natural lanolin, a greasy substance that sheep secrete. It protects the sheep, and for a few days after they’re sheared, they are more susceptible to getting sick if they’re exposed to freezing rain.
“It’s kind of a shock to the system,” Krebs said.
Inside the trailer, several men are working with electric razors to shear the sheep, pushing the fleece out of the way through a hole in the side of the trailer. Balderson leaned from a harness and seamlessly turned a sheep from one side to another, getting most of the fleece off in one cut.
Other workers quickly gathered up the fleece, spreading it out on a table and picking through it to find twine or other things caught in it. “Tagged” fleece, or fleece with a lot of manure on it, is composted and used to fertilize the Krebs' fields. The workers then assess the quality of the fleece, assigning it a “grade,” based on the texture and length of the fibers. AA fleece is the highest quality, and A grade fleece is the most common. Fleece will have a larger break, or crimp, if the sheep were stressed for a period of time after getting sheared. That gap puts the fleece at a lower grade.
Once it’s graded and sorted, workers put it into a machine that presses the fleece down into a cube, which they pack and load onto a truck. Each bale of wool weighs 400 to 500 pounds, and Krebs estimated that they would have between 90 and 105 bales when they were finished. Each sheep produces between 10 and 20 pounds of wool. That weight is considered the “grease weight,” and drops by about half once it’s cleaned.
Sheep are also separated by the color of their wool during shearing. White-fleece sheep are sheared first, and comprise at least 97 percent of the herd. The rest, which have black fleece, are sheared later.
“When they go to dye the fiber, it dyes differently,” Krebs said, noting that the white fiber is softer and finer, and brings in the most money. Black fiber is coarser and harder to dye, he said.
Krebs said some of the challenges of sheep ranching are environmental — availability of feed depends largely on weather. But other major issues relate more to the chasm between ranchers and those who make the rules they have to follow.
Krebs said many people don’t realize that they aren’t hurting sheep when they shear them.
“We don’t take the hide off, we leave wool on them after they’re sheared.”
But the lack of understanding between ranchers and government, or ranchers and environmental groups, goes deeper than that. Krebs said federal associations try to regulate the hiring process, trying to get them to hire American workers.
“But no one wants to do this kind of work,” he said.
The workers that they do have, he said, are here on work visas, and federal agencies are trying to require employers to pay them a minimum wage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — which he says many businesses can’t afford.
“If that goes through, it will knock a lot of people out of the business,” he said. “It hurts your bottom line.”
Krebs said regulations supported by environmental groups have hurt farmers, too. He said restrictions placed on farmers to protect bighorn sheep from getting disease from domesticated animals have pushed some farmers out of the business.
The limitations on grazing have wide effects, he said.
“The sad part is there are wildfires that could have been reduced by grazing — if there’s less fuel, there’s less fire,” he said.
But this week, he's focused on the task at hand: shearing sheep. As the crew finished up one band of sheep, they got ready for the next one, which was grazing just over the hill.
"Our sheep count's low right now," he said. "Next year we'll be above 3,000. But no two years are the same."