Some people think it’s a big deal to pare an apple so that the peel remains in one long piece.
How about a sheep?
Professional sheep shearer Jim Davis can shear a sheep in three minutes (closer to one if he’s in a competition) and the fleece remains in one piece.
To demonstrate, Davis escorts one of sheep from his own herd of 75 into the roomy barn located on his farm, southwest of Odell. The spicy smell of hay hangs in the air, striped with outside light. Davis holds the sheep under the jaw and leads her to a spot beneath the wooden rafters. In a takedown move a wrestler would envy, he moves the sheep to a position where she is sitting on her rump. The sheep looks more bemused than upset, and oddly like a giant stuffed animal in this position.
Using a jointed shearing shaft from Australia, where all the best sheep shearing equipment is made, Davis grabs the clippers and begins. He moves his powerful clippers across her belly and then on to her hips and legs.
“You just work around the animal,” Davis says, as if working around such a complicated topographical surface was no problem. Gently, but firmly, holding the sheep’s head to one side, then the other, Davis scoops the fleece away from her neck and shoulders.
With a flip of his foot, Davis maneuvers the sheep onto her back, his shears moving deftly the whole time. Then it’s back on her rump as Davis shears away the rest of the back. The entire shearing is accomplished with nary a bleat or flinch on the part of the sheep.
The four-to-five pound fleece lays on the floor in one piece and Davis sends the newly shorn, and pinkish-looking sheep, back to the herd. The other sheep sniff her for a few minutes because she smells a little different now and then her life is back to normal.
But isn’t she cold?
“No, I leave a little stubble,” Davis says, “and sheep have a high body temperature, around 103 degrees.”
Davis shears around 14,000 sheep a year. He estimates he shears one-third of the sheep in Illinois. He also works in Indiana and Iowa.
Davis says he’s sheared over 250,000 sheep in his lifetime.
It’s something he said he’d never do.
Growing up across the road, Davis and his brother helped their dad Harold farm the family land. Davis says he and his brother helped their dad but swore they would never shear sheep for a living. “It’s just too hard,” Davis says.
But, he continues, opportunities presented themselves. He bought the house and a few acres across the road from his parents and settled into the life of a farmer and sheep shearer.
That was 27 years ago.
Davis says sheep shearing folds in nicely with farming. He spends seven months a year, six days a week, shearing sheep. The other months are spent farming with his dad. His brother works for State Farm Insurance Cos.
Davis gets up between 5 and 6 a.m. each morning, sometimes earlier, depending on how far he has to drive. “I like to be at the job by 7:30,” he says. Davis tries to shear between 80 and 100 sheep a day. Sometimes those are all in one location, in which case he charges around $3.50 per sheep.
Other times, he must travel around, and he arranges logistics on his cell phone while driving the country roads.
Recently, Davis sheared eight sheep for a 92-year-old farmer who told him, “Your family has been shearing my sheep for over 40 years.”
The busiest months for sheep shearing are March, the traditional month for sheep shearing, and November, when many farmers like to get their sheep shorn before lambing (typically in January and February). During March and November, Davis works 12-hour days.
Half of Davis’ customers have their sheep shorn once a year, the others twice a year. “It’s the same amount of wool either way,” he says.
That wool is gathered up and piled into enormous burlap bags. Most often, Davis buys the shorn wool from the farmers for whom he shears.
Occasionally Davis sells wool to a niche market but most often he sells it to a firm in Rockford who will, in turn, sell it and ship it to Asia, where most of it will become clothing.
“Wool prices don’t fluctuate much, not more than five cents a year,” Davis says. “It’s never worth much, usually around 20 cents a pound, and the usage goes down every year.”
“One reason is we don’t need to stay warm like we used to,” Davis muses.
Sheep shearing is a physically demanding job. “And it’s getting worse,” he says. “Sheep are genetically getting bigger and bigger.”
That’s because the meat market wants bigger lambs.
Davis admits to being really tired when Sundays roll around, but he’s still at the top of his game. He’s won the Illinois division of the sheep-shearing contest at the Illinois State Fair for the last 11 or 12 years, he says. Speed counts for one-fifth of the scoring point totals in such events and that’s when Davis shears a sheep in less than a minute, but he admits, “It wears me out.”
He’s had offers to come and shear in New Zealand.
Davis says he’ll continue shearing for another 10 years or so, until his two children are through college.
And although it’s not the life he planned in fact, it’s the life he didn’t plan Davis has no regrets. “It’s in your blood,” Davis explains. He likes working with his dad and enjoys the relationships he’s formed with customers. He’s been shearing for many of them for 27 years.
His own herd of sheep takes about a half-hour of his time each day.
His kids help out, as does Mia, the Great Pyrenees sheepdog that keeps a watchful eye and chases off coyotes in the night.
Those watchful eyes will soon be taking in a new site, if all goes according to plan. The Davis farm is located on a ridge, the perfect place for a wind farm.
The thought of looking out at windmills after a long day of shearing sheep suits Davis just fine.