Lincoln Longwool Lambs – Photo by Kat Ludlam
Raising sheep for wool is a fun and satisfying experience. The market for wool and wool products continues to grow as people are eager to learn skills such as felting, spinning, carpet knotting, weaving, knitting, crocheting, and many others. We have run thousands of nonwovens through our mill and the difference in quality is immense. Breeding, feeding and care have a major influence on the quality of the fleece and thus on the quality of the finished products. With a little careful planning and extra care, you can breed sheep with good quality wool, make your fur stand out from the crowd, make it more desirable, and increase your bottom line.
Making great wool starts with choosing the right breed of sheep. While all sheep grow wool, not all wool is created equal. Even with wool-specific breeds, the variation is immense. Before buying your breeding stock, you need to research the different breeds of wool and find the one that will suit your needs with your finished product. Long-wool breeds like Lincoln Longwool and Wensleydale have coarser wool that grows faster. It’s strong and doesn’t have that much memory, so it’s more draped. It’s great for carpets and items that aren’t close to your skin. Fine wool breeds like Merino and CVM grow slower and therefore have a shorter staple length. You generally have a lot of curl and memory for the fiber. They are much softer and wonderful for making items that are used on the skin. Double-haired breeds like Navajo Churro have a coarser top coat and then a softer undercoat. Crossings are also possible. Often the best fleece comes from a cross between two breeds, each of which has excellent properties. What does your market want? What will sell well? Or what would you like for your personal use? You need to consider all of these things when choosing your breed or breeds.
This is also a good time to consider whether you want to hand process your fiber or have a custom mill done. If you want a mill to do this, you should contact some mills and get an idea of what they can and cannot handle. Some mills cannot process the very short fleece, such as the Southdown Babydoll. Some cannot process the very long wool, such as the Cotswold (if only sheared once a year). If you want your fiber to be milled, it is important to consider whether there is a mill that can process what you want and where it is before you buy your stocks and start growing.
There are so many options for wool breeds and it can be overwhelming to choose from at times. A great source for studying different breeds of wool is Carol Ekarius’ Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook. Take the time to do your research before deciding on a breed or breeds.
Once you have selected a breed (or breeds) you need to find a breeder to purchase your stock from. Again, the variation in the fleece can be immense, even within a particular breed. One Bluefaced Leicester fleece can be much softer and finer while another is coarser. You need to find a breeder who has selectively grown for the desired characteristics of your wool. Visit the farm, grab the wool and see if it is really what you want. If you can’t visit the farm, buy a raw fleece from them or have a wool sample (or multiple samples from different sheep) sent to you to give you an idea of exactly what they were bred for and what their sheep are producing.
It’s important to note that you can’t just focus on the fleece. The animal must have good conformation, no defects in its physical shape and be healthy and hearty. If selective breeding focuses exclusively on the fleece, all sorts of genetic defects can occur in the body because you are not paying attention to the conformation. Both must be taken into account when choosing the breeding material.
When you start breeding your herd, it is important to carefully select your breeding groups. It can be easy to just breed every sheep you have, or to breed a sheep because it’s friendly or your “favorite.” However, if you want to make a high quality fleece, you need to specifically breed the rams and ewes that will give you lambs with this excellent fleece. Again, do not forget to consider conformation, health and resilience in selective breeding.
Wensleydale Fleece – Photo by Kat Ludlam
Feed them well
It goes without saying that a well-fed sheep produces a better quality fleece. Feed your rams and not pregnant sheep with high quality pasture or grass hay. Pregnant women (after 90 days) and lactating ewes need alfalfa and possibly cereals to keep their body condition, coat healthy and grow well while pregnant and feeding their lambs. Dr. Nancy Irlbeck, renowned animal nutritionist and shepherdess, taught us that proper feeding of pregnant ewes from 90 more hair follicles per inch. Once a lamb is ready to eat solid food, it needs good alfalfa in addition to breast milk so that its body can properly grow and mature while an excellent fleece grows at the same time. And don’t forget not to forget good minerals and of course fresh, clean water that is available to all sheep at all times.
What you feed can also affect your fleece as it physically sits on the fleece as it eats. If the hay you buy has a lot of seeds in it, you will find that your fleece is full of seeds, some of which will not come out, affecting your wool and your finished product. The same goes for grazing in shabby pastures or pastures with plants that contain ridges. Some fleece was ruined by the VM (vegetable matter) that got into the sheep. The time and effort to remove it devalues the fleece and makes it not worth it. And if you sell your fleece raw, the value will definitely go down with a lot of VM.
One way to keep your fleece cleaner and VM free is to coat the sheep. Sheathing isn’t for every situation, but when it is it can really improve the quality and value of the fleece. The coating prevents the fading of dark fleece by the sun, the staining of light fleece and keeps most of the VM away.
If you want to coat your sheep, you will need to invest in 2-3 sizes for each sheep as the wool grows as the season progresses. You can’t leave the same jacket all year round. You need to change jackets when the wool grows, otherwise the wool may become matted or even injure the sheep. You will also need different sizes to switch your lambs over as they will grow to their full size. The jackets wear out over time and need to be mended or replaced. Sheathing is definitely a financial investment, but with the right market it can pay off with the quality of the wool you produce.
Sheathed CVM / Merino Ewe – Photo by Kat Ludlam
Same CVM / Merino Ewe with jacket off – photo Kat Ludlam
Whenever you coat your sheep, you need to check them twice a day. Jackets can tangle, tear, or get caught in fences or sheep’s legs. It is not safe to coat your sheep unless you can control the entire herd at least twice a day.
The choice of the right breed and the right individual breeding sheep, targeted breeding and good feeding have a major influence on the quality of fleece production. In Part II of this series, I discuss breaks in the fleece and the best methods of scissors and aprons to produce excellent quality wool.
Kat Ludlam has been homesteading in Colorado for 15 years. She and her husband Daniel are the owners of Willow Creek Farmwhere they raise special wool sheep, milk sheep, chickens and plants that thrive in their location. You also own and operate a custom fiber processing factory, Willow Creek Fiber Mill . Kat loves to feed her family on her land and teach the homestead to others. Read all the cats MOTHER EARTH NEWS Contributions Here.
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Originally published: 9/7/2021 2:21:00 PM