Sarah Jane Humke

The life of a traveling, reading, writing, spining and knitting shepherdess.

Yesterday was a long day that actually started the night before.  Well, if I’m being completely honest, it started last year at the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival.  David Kier, a professional shearer, was there doing demos and my friend Kendra started talking to him.  It is not an unusual thing for Kendra to start up a conversation with someone that is doing something that she finds interesting and in this case it was David’s shearing.  She watched him do a private shearing and had a good long chat with the man that I joined intermittently as I was talking to other people.  However, from the parts of the conversation that I was part of and from what Kendra told me later,  I knew that I liked the guy and his shearing.

I previously have liked to get my sheep sheared before they lamb in May and I had a shearer set-up for that.  However, plans changed and they weren’t able to do my sheep anymore.  This left me in a bit of a quandary.  I no longer had a shearer and I didn’t really want to use the shearer that I had used the year before (he’s not used to Shetlands).  So I was reminded of David by Kendra after I told her about my issue and I gave him a call.  I knew it would be quite a drive for him from his home in Wisconsin, but it never hurts to ask.  He kinda agreed to do it but really wanted me to come to the shearing school that he taught at near his home in Wisconsin, which I was good with as I had taken a shearing course previously and it hadn’t really stuck except that my respect for shearers strength and skills went through the roof.  Anyway, he stated correctly, that I needed a sustainable way to get my shearing done and since Shetland sheep aren’t always ready all at the same time it would probably be a good idea to learn how to do it myself.  I wasn’t able to go to the shearing school the weekend that it was on, so it was back to the drawing board for me.

In the past I had used my dad’s ancient shearing handset and machine and it was a bitch to use.  The handset is literally an antique, and was one of the original ones ever made.  You literally cannot get parts for them outside of antique specialists anymore.  It would also get insanely hot very quickly which made it so that you would have to allow it to cool down between sheep in order to just hold it (and for all the shearers out there, no the blade wasn’t too tight, it had always been that way due to the design).  David suggested that I purchase an electric shearer and as fate would have it a friend of mine was selling one.  Yay!  It’s a Premier unit similar to this one.

So now I have the equipment, but I still need the shearer.  After a number of calls between David and I, mostly figuring-out when would be the best time to shear my flock, we hit on Wednesday.  My flock had started the rise and nearly all of them have had their lambs.  Typically shearers aren’t keen on shearing really pregnant ewes as it can potentially cause the ewes to abort the lambs.  So usually the last month of gestation is off-limits for shearing.

Anyway, I’m telling you all of this so that you understand just some of the factors that go into getting a shearer to the farm, and that’s just my side of the equation.  The shearer has other customers and lives of their own to schedule around as well.

The other enemy of shearing is wet.  You do not want to shear wet sheep.  I had always assumed that this was basic common knowledge, but growing-up with a former sheep shearer for a dad kinda makes it so that your childhood knowledge is a little… unusual.  Wool will absorb up to thirty percent of it’s weight in water.  The blades and combs that a shearer uses are highly susceptible to rusting and wet sheep are more difficult to shear.  You also don’t want to pack a bunch of wet fleeces into a normal fleece bag as they will mildew and just become disgusting and impossible to use for anything.  Throw it all together and you just get bad.  Plus, nobody wants to work all day both filthy and wet.

Tuesday was sunny, bright and dry.  But the forecast called for scattered showers that evening and scattered showers on Wednesday too.  But if you are going to shear, let me assure you that there is zero chance that those showers will be scattered anywhere else other than over your flock.

Now my dad is rather hard of hearing and in the best of circumstances this makes for difficult communication.  Any time you are moving livestock is not the best of circumstances.  My cousin-by-marriage, Sam of A Whimsical Wood Yarns, has promised to make a colorway called Incandescent Rage after my description of moving sheep for shearing last year.  *ahem*  I’m not proud to admit that I completely and utterly lost my shit.  I even threw things.  This is so unlike me, that you can get a feel for just how much moving sheep this time of the year sucks.  The sheep have been in the pen all winter and this is their chance to see a bit of the world, eat some grass, have a good frolic.  Add into the mix thirty lambs who have never really been out of the pen and are confused and scared and wondering why mama isn’t answering because her mouth is stuffed with grass.   You end-up with a lot of sheep very reluctant to go anywhere you are taking them cause right here is awesome!  This year I didn’t rage so much as hurt.  I fell badly into a batch of sheep over some sharp equipment and literally got trampled.  My glasses fell-off and got stepped-on, and I am probably going to have a massive, very ugly, bruise on my leg for sometime.



If you think that shepherding is all Little Bo Peep, you are SO wrong.

I finally rolled into the house around 10:30pm, after having finally gotten all the stragglers in, with lightning and thunder in the near distance.

On Wednesday I awake at 5:30am and start working on things that still needed done, like preparing the foods for lunch that day.  I figured that I had a few hours as the shearer is quite a ways away.

He rolls into the driveway at 7am on the dot.


It is lightly raining still with occasional thunder in the distance.  By the time I get him set-up with everything he needed (plywood, electricity, and a light) it’s around 7:30am and I am rather damp.  He starts by showing me some footwork.  One of the things that you don’t realize watching a shearer demonstrate shearing is how much of the work the shearers feet and legs are doing.  Holding the sheep is almost entirely done by the shearers knees and thighs.  Where you move, when you move, and how you move are as important as the shearing equipment.  It’s a tightly choreographed dance between shearer and the sheared.  The bodies involved make unnatural contortions and use a wide variety of muscles that aren’t normally used unless you are Xenia Onatopp.  He shows me the movements shearing a couple of the sheep that are ready and then has me do it.  Both the sheep and I are deeply unsure about this.  The sheep is Greyson and I have never sheared a male sheep before and I manage to nick his pizzle really well, and it bleeds like a son-of-a-gun.  I feel terrible, he’s not super happy.  It’s raining in earnest now and I am covered in pizzle blood, little bits of cut wool, dirt, sweat, poop, and lanolin.  He does a few more sheep to let me recover, then I do another.  I ask if he would do Charlotte as she is one of the sheep that is ready and I tell him that she is due any day.  I trust him to not stress her unduly and he shears her in less that two minutes and she seems surprised when it’s done so suddenly.  I also ask him to do Homer and Marge, the Jacobs that came to me at Christmastime, as they are coated in cockle burrs.  They are also well-armed with an assortment of intense horns.  I do a few more sheep, he does a few more sheep, I am getting used to the mantra of, “…knees together, bottom of the comb down, knees together, bottom of the comb down…”  I’m sweating so hard by this time that I am dripping onto the sheep.  I can distinctly smell myself.  My thighs are burning, my leg that I injured the evening before is one large pain with extra side orders of more pain whenever a sheep kicks or bumps me there.

And then it’s lunchtime.  Hallelujah!  We all sit down for a bit and have sandwiches and berry salad and hard-boiled eggs.  I have very seldom been so grateful for a hard, plastic lawn chair in my entire life.  I wasn’t alone by this point. My friend Ellen and her son Patrick had come to help skirt, sort, and ID fleeces for me.  Elise was a general dogs body, running around feeding the bottle babies and helping wherever needed.  She took this photo of me while I was shearing.


Herbert was one of the first sheep sheared and he was all up in everyone’s business while they were getting sheared.


Towards the middle of the afternoon I started asking questions.  Mainly, why are we shearing them this way?  He explained how the technique was developed and then showed me another way to shear that didn’t involve Pilates with a live, annoyed, and often horned, animal.  The alternate method of shearing was done standing up with either someone holding the animal or tying the animal in a halter to something.  The fleece ends-up split in two, but honestly, I did SUCH a better job this way that the fleece was in much better condition by the time I was done than doing it the more typical New Zealand style of shearing.  I was also in better condition.  You still have to do the belly in about the same way, but the amount of time that you are shearing using your legs and thighs is greatly reduced.  My father kind-of rolled his eyes at me when I told him all this, but I’m not going to be a professional shearer, I just need to be able to get the fleeces from my flock off when they need to come off of them.  If I’m able to do that in a manner that is less stressful for me and for the sheep (cause trust me, if I’m stressed, they’re stressed) then so be it if it isn’t the “typical” way of shearing.  I’m not flying off tomorrow and joining a shearing crew in Australia (except maybe as a skirter) so shearing them “properly” maybe isn’t my biggest concern.

After the shearer left, Elise and I gave a few CDT shots to specific sheep.  Mostly the Jacobs (because I don’t know their history), little Lisa (because she should have gotten one a few weeks ago actually).  The orphan lambs each got one even though it’s a tad early for them, but since they are being bottle fed, I don’t want to take any chances.  We also moved the sheep back into the pen.  I was going to move them onto grass but they were way to hyped-up to do that so I wanted to move them back to the pen so that they could calm down, get hydrated, match-up with lambs and generally chill.  Moving the sheep back went a little better than moving them out as Elise has the bulk of her hearing still and trusts me to know what works with my sheep.

Afterwards, we went to Dairy Queen and got big ice cream treats.  We went through the drive though to save the other customers the smell.  We deserved it.

Some things that I learned from shearing class and from the shearer:

-My Shetlands are far more calm than the average Shetlands. And I quote, “Most Shetlands would be bouncing off the walls right about now.”  Most of them were snoozing or quietly hanging-out at the time.

-I learned a quick trick to figure-out an animals body condition when they are in full fleece that is pretty easy to remember.

-I realized just how good Elise has gotten at catching sheep.  Really, she’s a pro at it.

-I think that I may need a herding dog sooner than later.  If for no other reason than my own personal health.  This has been sort-of a maybe-in-the-future kinda thing, but the flock has gotten large enough that I need help.

-I learned about the rise in Shetland sheep and how to identify it before (attempting) shearing them.

-The Jacob Sheep look about four years younger without the load of crappy, burdock-riddled fleece on their backs.

-The Duluth Trading No-Yank Tank really lives up to it’s name.  I wasn’t constantly pulling the shirt down despite bending over a LOT.

-Lambs will sleep wherever the hell they want to.


-Don’t wear pants with holes in the thigh (AKA farm pants) as some of those little suckers will manage to get a horn stuck in them requiring a delicate and embarrassing extraction.

*** Editing May 25***  I’m adding this onto the end here as I was informed by someone whom I trust to know what she is talking about, that shearing later in the ewe’s pregnancy will not cause abortions if done properly.  It may be more uncomfortable for all involved, but it should not cause any issues.  That being said, this is something that you should discuss with your shearer and decide what you and they are comfortable with.  Most of the shearers in this area that I have talked to in the past were not comfortable shearing in the last month.  This may have been because of sheep owners blaming them for something that wasn’t their fault or they were simply working with outdated information.  Either way, this is a judgement call that each person would need to make with their own flock.  I personally wouldn’t use a shearer that I have never had shear before (or had seen them shear) with animals close to birthing.  I, however, had no qualms whatsoever having David shear Charlotte who is very close to done, after seeing how easy he was on the animals.






Yesterday I lost a ewe.  It was Abigail, my lead ewe.  It was unexpected and horrible to come home to.  I hadn’t lost a sheep in over a year and to lose one so abruptly was a shock.  Abigail wasn’t my finest ewe, but she was one of my favorites.  She was always the first to tell me that something was up and she would do it loudly with a bah that sounded like the voice of the woman sitting at the end of the bar who has smoked two packs a day for the past twenty years and belts back a couple of Johnnie Walkers neat every night.  It was a deep and scratchy bah that was always a surprise coming from such a petite Shetland ewe.  This is a photo from the first summer I had my flock.


Miss Abigail being good.


If you have been reading this blog the past few weeks, you might remember that Abigail had twins, a little ewe and ram.  I now have my first bottle babies.  Thankfully they both took to the bottle fine, it was just catching them in order to introduce them to the bottle that was the trick.  They are over three weeks old and are past the very hardest parts of survival.  The twins have had three weeks of mama’s milk, including the essential colostrum, so have gotten the best start I could hope for.   This pair have already been noted for their independence (not a surprise given who their mama was) and are often seen wandering about together outside the pen.  I’m not worried that they will make it, but it still breaks my heart that I have to say that…IMG_9614

I sneak into the sheep pen every morning hoping to not disturb the flock.  The time before everyone has gotten-up and started their day is when I can get the best overview of how everyone is doing.  Ewes and lambs that are contentedly snoozing or chewing cud are a sign of all being well.  Lambs that are fussy or mamas that are off by themselves or are just up and unhappy are a sign that something is off. There are times when everyone is fussy, like in the summer when it hasn’t cooled down appreciatively overnight.  However, this morning was tranquil with both lambs and ewes mostly asleep. IMG_1828 2


Sometimes you come across some interesting cuddle buddies.  Here’s Herbert with a new friend.


And of course Greyson.

IMG_0557 As I walk through, there’s usually one sheep that sounds the alarm that someone is there and the rest of the flock then dozily comes to a basic level of alertness.  Mamas start to get up and allow for the first feeding of the day.   IMG_9594IMG_3061

Lambs are sleeping all over the place.  A favorite is in the hay feeding area near the bale.  They are being “dangerous” by being out of the pen but are within feet of their mamas still.  Also, it’s a cushy place to sleep.


The oldest lambs are already starting to eat hay, a nibble here and there.  Some of the adventurous ones have even been getting some grass outside the pen.  Lambs’ rumens aren’t fully developed at this point, but it’s the experimental eating that helps to develop it.  The ewes help to “encourage” this eating by, well, quite frankly, kicking them when they try to nurse too often as they get older.  The older the lamb, the less the ewe will allow it to nurse and the stronger it will kick it when it tries.  I’ve seen a ewe that was weaning a two month-old  lamb kick it so hard that it bounced when it hit the ground (it didn’t hurt the lamb, they’re practically made from rubber at this point in their lives).  However, at this point it’s more like shooing away an annoying insect, sort of a, “Okay, you’ve had enough don’t you think…?” kind of persuasion.

Right now, as I still await Charlotte’s big delivery, we’re in the sweet spot of lamb-hood.   They are (mostly) big enough to play off on their own but still small enough that they are babies.  I know how short this period of time is and I plan to appreciate it as much as possible.


Nearly done.  I have one last lady, Charlotte, to lamb still and then lambing 2018 is in the books.  On Monday, my smallest ewe Eva gave birth to a healthy little ram lamb.  He was a little surprising, despite the tendency for rams to be white this year.


As his mama is all black…IMG_7928

Still, his birth took a lot of stress out of my life as I was really very concerned about her ability to birth a lamb.  I needn’t have worried as she did just fine on her own and is an excellent mother to the little guy.

Nadia, one of my older ewes, gave birth to a lovely little ewe lamb this afternoon.  Miss Nadia is a bit of a Eeyore-esqe sheep, always seeming down and depressed.  This is simply her nature, and there is nothing wrong with that.  Really, what do I know?  She may really be the life of the sheep party and the jokester of the flock, but I don’t speak sheep so I will never know.  Anyway, she and her little ewe lamb are doing quite well tonight…


Current stats: thirty lambs from twenty ewes.  One final ewe left to lamb.  Fourteen ewe lambs and sixteen ram lambs.  150% lambing rate.

The view to the West…


Over the weekend, four more lambs were born.  First it was twins from Fanny with a ewe/ram pair that were both white!  Yay!  The little ram is spotted and the ewe is almost entirely white.


I had been a little disappointed by the fact that all my girls had been, up to this point, born dark colored.  I know that some of them will lighten-up considerably, and several have already started, but I did want a few white girls to add to the flock this year.

So imagine my surprise when Miss Charlotte went and had another little white ewe lamb shortly thereafter!


Miss Rosie was next that evening having a darling little ram lamb under the chicken coop.  I didn’t get to introduce myself to him for a while as his mama was keeping him cooped-up under the coop.  IMG_1194 2

The weekend was a little cold and rainy for the most part.  However, that didn’t stop the bees from getting out and hustling.


The lambs played a lot.  Pretty much massive run-arounds with twenty or so lambs tearing around the field like an ardorable, bah-ing,  moto-cross race.  After the running around, they are tuckered-out.IMG_2760


This little guy is actually dreaming about nursing as I took this.  His little lips kept sucking like he was getting dinner from mama.


There are little cuties everywhere you look….




Jolly finally had her twins last night.  Two lovely, ram lambs.  And I have to say, she looks so much more COMFORTABLE.  Towards the end there, she just looked huge and miserable.

I’m including the outtakes from the twins birthday photo shoot so you can understand some of the issues I have getting the best shot:-)IMG_3530IMG_2887IMG_2605IMG_9463IMG_6581IMG_5711

Now I have six ewes remaining to lamb.  I’m up to 24 lambs, 10 ewes and 14 rams.

I had a meeting for the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival in Ames and I didn’t get home until after dark last night.  So it was with a headlamp that I greeted this little guy.  I’m sure that he now thinks that I am some sort of God.  Or Iron Man.  Or a bizarre cyclops.  Or he might just be very confused about the whole meeting.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that he is a total cutie patootie and his mama is Isobel.  IMG_4219

Also, he really likes to eat….


I couldn’t get him to come off his mama to take a picture at that moment for love or money.  His mama even kept moving a little to try to get him to come up for air and he just resolutely hung on.

The little ram was born to Miss Mabel shortly before I did my walk-through this morning.  Now, Miss Mabel used to be a bit of an air-headed sort of ewe.  If she had been human, she would have been the pretty mother ahead of you in line at the grocery store who blithely wanders away without her debit card in the machine despite it’s ominous klaxon which makes it sound more like she had accidentally entered the codes for the nuclear missiles aimed at Russia rather than a simple four digit code to pay for her $52.49 in groceries.  The type who exclaims, “Oh my! I’d forget my head if it wasn’t attached properly!” then leaving her sunglasses on the counter as she leaves again causing the bag boy to chase her down in the parking lot to give her eyewear back to her.

However, Mabel has grown out of that (mostly).  She hasn’t seriously lost a baby since the first one (and by lost I mean unable to find) and is just generally less daft.  Age brings… well, something.  I don’t know if I would call it wisdom precisely, perhaps experience?

Anyway, Mabel had a lovely single ram lamb this morning and both were doing lovely when I went out to check on everybody.IMG_9007

We’re entering the final countdown now.  The ladies who are still expectant are: Charlotte, Eva, Fanny, Jolly (who, poor thing, looks rather like a large barge on short legs), Missy, Nadia, and Rosie.

I have just realized that I am a very bad shepherd.  I actually have twenty-one ladies bred, not twenty.  *ahem*  Well, I guess that this just makes me bad at counting sheep? Anyway, there are still seven ladies left to lamb not six as I had thought previously.  So yay! More lambs for you!

There are now twenty-two lambs running around like adorable miscreants, ten ewes and twelve rams.