Raising Sheep for Excellent Quality Wool, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Kat Ludlam and Willow Creek Farm
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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, rug-making, weaving, knitting, crochet, and many others. We have had thousands of fleece come through our mill and the difference in quality is immense. Breeding, feeding, and care make a huge difference in the quality of fleece and thus, the quality of the finished products. With some careful planning and special care, you can raise sheep with excellent quality wool, setting your fleece apart from the rest, making them more desirable, and increasing your profits.

Wool Breeds

Producing great wool starts with choosing the right breed of sheep. While all sheep grow wool, not all wool is created equal. Even among wool-specific breeds the variation is immense. Before you go purchase your breeding stock you need to research the different wool breeds and find the one that matches with what you are wanting with your finished product. Long-wool breeds, such as Lincoln Longwool and Wensleydale, have a coarser wool that grows faster. It is strong and doesn’t have as much memory, so is more drape-y. It is excellent for rugs and items that won’t be close to your skin.

Fine-wool breeds, such as Merino and CVM, grow slower and thus have a shorter staple length. They generally have a lot of crimp and memory to the fiber. They are much softer and wonderful for making items that will be used against the skin. Dual-coated breeds, such as Navajo Churro, have a coarser outer coat, and then a softer under coat. Cross-breeding is also an option. Oftentimes the best fleece come from a cross of two breeds, bringing excellent qualities from each. What does your market want?  What will sell well?  Or what do you want for your personal use? You need to consider all of these things as you choose your breed or breeds.

This is also a great time to consider whether you plan to hand-process your fiber, or have a custom mill do it. If you would like a mill to do it, you should contact some mills and get an idea of what they can and cannot process. Some mills cannot process the very short fleece, such as Southdown Babydoll. Some cannot process the very long wools, such as Cotswold (if only sheared once a year). If you want your fiber to be mill-processed, taking into consideration whether or not there is a mill that can process what you are hoping for, and where it is located is important before you buy your stock and start breeding them.

There are so many options for wool breeds and it can sometimes feel overwhelming to decide. A great resource for studying different wool breeds is the Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook by Carol Ekarius. Take your time to do your research before settling on a breed or breeds.

Once you have chosen a breed (or breeds) you need to find a breeder to buy your stock from. Again, the variation in fleece can be immense, even within a specific breed. One Bluefaced Leicester fleece can be a lot softer and finer, while another is coarser. You need to find a breeder that has been selectively breeding for the attributes you want in your wool. Visit the farm, get your hands on 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 them send you a sample of wool (or several samples from different sheep) to give you an idea of exactly what they have been breeding for and what their sheep produce.

It is important to note that you cannot just focus on the fleece. The animal needs to have good conformation, no defects in its physical form, and be healthy and hearty. If selective breeding focuses solely on the fleece, you can end up with all sorts of genetic defects in the body because you are not paying attention to the conformation. Both need to be taken into consideration when choosing breeding stock.

Selective Breeding

Once you start breeding your stock it is important to select your breeding groups with purpose. It can be easy to fall into just breeding every sheep you have, or breeding a sheep because they are friendly or your “favorite.”  But if you aim to create a high-quality fleece you need to purposefully breed the rams and ewes that give you lambs with that excellent fleece. Again, don’t forget to keep conformation, health, and hardiness in mind when selective breeding.

Wensleydale fleece
Photo by Kat Ludlam

Feed Them Well

It goes without saying that a well-fed sheep will produce a better-quality fleece. Feed your rams and non-pregnant sheep with high-quality pasture or grass hay. Pregnant (after 90 days) and lactating ewes will need alfalfa and potentially grain to help keep their body condition up and their fleece healthy and growing well while they are gestating and feeding their lambs. Dr. Nancy Irlbeck, renowned animal nutritionist and shepherdess, taught us that properly feeding the pregnant ewe from 90 days of pregnancy on will even affect the secondary hair follicle development in the lamb(s) she is carrying, and thus can lead to lambs with more hair follicles per inch. Once a lamb is ready to start eating solids, they will need good alfalfa, in addition to their mother’s milk, so their bodies can grow and mature properly while also growing an excellent fleece. And don’t forget good mineral supplements and, of course, fresh, clean water available at all times to all sheep.

What you feed can also affect your fleece because of what it physically puts on the fleece as they are eating. If the hay you buy contains a lot of seeds you will find your fleece to be full of seeds, some of which will not come out and thus will affect your wool and finished product. The same is true with grazing them in seedy pastures, or pastures that have plants that contain burrs. Many a fleece has been ruined by the VM (vegetable matter) that got into it while it was on the sheep. The time and effort to remove it ends up de-valuing the fleece and makes it not worth it. And if you sell your fleece raw, having a lot of VM in it will definitely cause the value to plummet.

Jacketing

One option to help keep your fleece cleaner and free of VM is to jacket the sheep. Jacketing is not right for every situation, but when it is, it can really improve the quality and value of the fleece. Jacketing prevents sun-bleaching of dark fleece, staining of light fleece, and keeps out the majority of VM.

If you choose to jacket your sheep you will need to invest in 2-3 sizes for each sheep as their wool grows through the season. You cannot leave the same jacket on the whole year. You must change the jacket as the wool grows or it can cause felting of the wool or even injure the sheep. You will also need different sizes to change out on your lambs as they are growing to their full size. The jackets will wear out over time and need to be patched or replaced. Jacketing is definitely a financial investment, but with the right market it can pay itself off with the quality of the wool you will be producing.

Jacketed CVM/Merino Ewe
Photo by Kat Ludlam

Same CVM/Merino Ewe with the jacket removed
Photo Kat Ludlam

If you jacket your sheep you need to check them twice a day. Jackets can get tangled, torn, or caught up in fencing or the sheep’s legs. It is not safe to jacket your sheep if you are unable to check on the entire flock at least twice a day.

Choosing the right breed, and the right individual breeding sheep, selectively breeding them carefully, and feeding them well has a large impact on the quality of fleece they produce. In Part II of this series, I will discuss breaks in the fleece, and the best methods for shearing and skirting to produce excellent quality wool.


Kat Ludlam has been homesteading in Colorado for 15 years now. She and her husband, Daniel, are the owners of Willow Creek Farm, where they breed specialty wool sheep, milk sheep, chickens, and crops that thrive in their location. They also own and run a custom fiber processing mill, Willow Creek Fiber Mill . Kat loves to feed her family from their land, and teach others to homestead as well. Read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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