March 31, 2003

'Shearing School' Gives Shaving Instruction

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The Cornell Professional Shearing School held a two day instructional course on March 8 and 9 at the Teaching and Research Center Sheep Farm in Harford, N.Y. Doug Rathke, a world-renowned sheep shearer, was one of the three instructors at the course.

The shearing festival was held not for entertainment, but rather because there is a severe shortage of professional shearers, especially in the Ithaca area. Although hair sheep are becoming popular due to the low price of wool, there are still many sheep with wool that need to be shorn annually.

The purpose of this weekend-long course was “to teach new shearers advanced skills and to refresh the skills of experienced shearers,” said Prof. Michael Thonney, animal science, director of the Cornell Sheep Program.

Thonney helped organize the shearing festival and school. As a professor, he does research and teaches multiple courses on cattle and sheep nutrition and growth. He encouraged students in the animal science “Sheep” class to observe the shearing class; one student in attendance was Rachel Clancy ’06. Because Cornell has such a hands-on based veterinary and pre-vet program, there is a large interest in sheep shearing on campus.

Jim Baldwin, a professional shearer from the area, explained that there were quite a few beginners at the course because of its famous instructor. The technique used by Rathke was developed by the New Zealand Wool Board, an authority in the shearing industry.

“The wool board method has been carefully developed over the years and is the most efficient, safe, and effective way to get the wool off the sheep,” Baldwin said.

Rathke, the main instructor, has been shearing for over 20 years, primarily in his native Minnesota. He has also spent time in New Zealand, Asia and Eastern Europe. Rathke has vast experience in running professional schools throughout the country. Because of the need for personal instruction in honing the skills of shearers, the course could accommodate only 22 people. According to Thonney, nearly 300 sheep were shorn in the two days of instruction. In addition to teaching about shearing patterns, blade use and maintenance of instruments, the course also focused on the importance of health and physical fitness for sheep.

Baldwin’s fellow shearers come from a very varied background. Some of them own their own flocks, while many others are students affiliated with Cornell. Although there is a lot of interest in learning about shearing and practicing the techniques, Baldwin said, “in the immediate area there are no full-time, professional shearers. Enough sheep do not exist to make that possible without extensive travel.”

Cornell has one of the bigger flocks in the immediate area, with nearly 600 sheep and ewes. Because there are not many professional shearers, this weekend’s course helped the local flock owners who need help shearing. Now, during shearing season, more people will be able to have the necessary skills to safely shear even the more difficult sheep with valuable wool, like merino. The Cornell Sheep Farm, because of its size, currently relies on the aide of many part-time shearers, and will be among those who benefited most from the weekend’s instruction.

Archived article by Melissa Korn