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Sheep ranching and champion shearers

A little over a minute ... Tony Torendell, left, and Loren Opstedahl, along with four other crew members, calm the ewes and easily manuever them for shearing. Other workers collect and bail the wool, while ranch hands keep the wooly animals coming into the work trailer and the shorn animals going back to the pasture.

The long trailer sat toward the back of the huge quonset, the trailer's left side completely opened. The right side was a two-level runway for sheep, the upper for mostly ewes and some rams herded in for shearing, while lower chutes lead the shorn animals back out to the pasture behind the quonset.

Every minute and some seconds, one of the six men pushed a shorn sheep out and smoothly reaches for a wooly one. The more experienced men have no difficulty positioning each animal, which then lays like a rag doll while being sheared.

Landowner Steve Clements and seven ranch hands barely kept up with the Opstedahl Sheep Shearing crew hired for several days to shear most of Clements' sheep. The crew had sheared around 70 ewes a few weeks ago, and would be back in a few more weeks to do a few hundred more.

Clements, a third generation sheep rancher operating approximately 15 miles northwest of Philip, is also the president of the South Dakota Sheepgrowers Association. He said that most ranchers near his age understood sheep and shearing, though younger people might not.

"A lamb is only up to a year of age, while mutton is older than a year," said Clements. "The main meat markets are on the east and west coasts, particularly Chicago. The biggest wool market is still China because of its cheap labor. The wool comes back to America in bulk cloth or in finished garments. The United States military uses a lot of wool and much of the carpet industry uses wool. You can't hardly get wool to burn. Because of its durability when used in shirts, if you don't outgrow it, it'll last almost forever," he said.

While he was talking, the shearers kept working. One gal was putting the wool into a bailing machine, which every so often unloaded a 500-plus pound rectangular bale of wool.

"You get about eight to 10 pounds of wool from a ewe," said Clements. "Thus, it takes about 60 sheep to make a bale. The good, fine wool, which is about three inches long, is currently bringing 70 cents per pound. Last year it brought $1.50 per pound. The belly wool is bringing 30 cents and the tags and floor sweepings bring 10 to 14 cents."

Still, the shearers kept pushing out shorn sheep. The leader of the crew, Loren Opstedahl from Piedmont, was the 2008 United States shearing champion. So far in 2009, he has taken fourth place in the Denver competitions. Working beside him was Tony Torendell, who recently took first place at the Black Hills Stock Show shearing contest in Rapid City and took first place in Denver. Competitions involve four or more sheep per contestant. Speed is judged, but the quality of no second cuts and no nicks is also judged.

Shearing this time of year makes perfect sense to a sheep rancher. Without their warm wool, ewes look for the comfort of a barn to lamb, thus making the lambing season easier on the rancher. The newborns don't have to search for their milk through wool, thus making their first highly fragile moments easier. And, without thick wool, the barned animals stay cleaner.

"If sheep are hot when they still have their thick wool, they stay in the corner and don't do anything. If cool, they eat and grow. That's better for selling," said Clements. A newborn will start nibbling on alfalfa hay after just a few days, and they are usually completely off the ewes in about three to four months. A market lamb weighs 80 to 100 pounds.

The Clements ranch has one border collie herd dog and two great pyrenees for night watch. While Clements was talking, South Dakota State Trapper Scott Huber arrived, having just collected two coyotes just north.

The shearing crew stays busy and moves quickly to its next job. "Spreads of 1,000 sheep or more are becoming rarer. Spreads of 300 to 400 head are more common," said Opstedahl.