Sunday, June 30, 2013

Day 49 - Shearing a Llama

I have never sheared an animal. Admittedly, this is not something I ever sought to do, but I knew I would likely gain a lot from hands on experience with one of the most traditional and enduring aspects of livestock farming. As such, early in my “I have never…” journey I began research on the seasonality of animal shearing in an effort to pinpoint an opportune time to seek a chance at following through with the experience. I was pleased to find that shearing often takes place in the early summer months to help the animals through the heat of summer, which prompted me to investigate possibilities to help shear livestock as soon as possible. With knowledge a co-worker of mine, Deb, has several llamas, I offered my assistance to her roughly a month ago. Deb was happy to take up my offer and provided me some rough details on the process. With weather a significant factor in the ability to shear, Deb and I made tentative plans to shear a llama when the persistent rains of late broke for a few days. With some luck over this weekend, Deb informed me we had the perfect opportunity to shear, so I headed to Deb’s farm this afternoon to tackle an “I have never…” experience unlike any other to date.

The barn
With absolutely no background in any aspect of shearing, I pulled into Deb’s driveway unaware of what to expect from the llamas, the process, or the experience. With Rachael accompanying me, I vocalized my curiosities and uncertainties as we exited the vehicle and took in the sight of the peaceful farm before us. As if on cue, Deb exited the house to our right just as my last hesitant word escaped my mouth. Deb greeted us with her familiar smile and took a few moments to get caught up with Rachael before introducing us to her husband. As I expected, the welcoming feeling was apparent as we talked briefly about the forthcoming experience. With Deb walking me through her history with the farm, we started slowly walking toward a barn nestled midway down the small hill running the length of the property. Eventually, Deb guided us around to the back of the barn and through a small gate where we were greeted by a small herd of llamas casually basking in the summer sun.

Deb walked through the names of each llama standing in the fenced in area as we made our way to a back door on the towering red barn. She explained Tanzin, Gandhi, and Dusty comprised the group standing outside and that we would likely find her fourth llama, Michael, inside the barn. As we entered through the old wooden door in the barn’s fieldstone foundation Deb’s prediction proved accurate. Inside the barn stood a massive white llama whose head approached seven feet tall. As my first up close encounter with a llama, I found it hard not to feel intimidated by the presence of the animal in the confined space of the barn’s interior. Clearly comfortable in the environment, Deb exclaimed, “This is Michael!” as the three of us took positions in the barn. Deb proceeded to explain that, while Michael doesn’t like to be touched, he enjoyed giving kisses to people. Amused by this idea, Rachael made a puckered her lips and made a kissing noise in the direction of Michael, which prompted the animal to take two sweeping steps forward and plant his lips lightly on the side of Rachael’s face. The act caught me off guard, causing me to let out a chuckle and the fact the animal understood the concept at all. It was clear we were before and intelligent being, and I was about to cut all of his hair off.

Moments later Deb went into action preparing some rope and a harness to guide Michael into a chute for shearing. Michael carefully observed Deb’s actions as she worked, becoming more aware of her intentions with each new step of the process. With all of the items prepared, Deb moved back toward Michael and said, “Alright! Let’s go!” as she raised the harness toward Michael’s head. Now fully aware of our intentions, Michael raised his head out of Deb’s reach and made a few quick movements toward the door. A second later Michael had pushed the barn door open, maneuver flawlessly between Rachael and I, and slinked outside. I let out a smile at what I just observed as Deb rushed toward the door and called out Michael’s name. “What now?” I asked as Deb acknowledged the unlikelihood of Michael returning and turned back into the barn. “We’ll just wait for another one to come in,” Deb said with confidence in her voice. Continuing, she said, “Tanzin likes people, so he’ll probably make his way up here now that the door is open again.” In response, the three of us stood in waiting for another llama to walk into the barn. Less than a minute after Deb’s last comment a smaller, brown llama came into view a poked his head into the door. “There’s Tanzin!” Deb said as the llama walked into the barn and looked around at the three of us. Amazed at how well Deb knew her animals, I shook my head in disbelief. As I stood watching on, Deb picked up where she left off with Michael without skipping a beat. With Tanzin cooperating nicely, she harnessed his narrow snout and started sweeping the animal’s coat with an oddly shaped tool. Deb explained she was removing the grass and large debris from Tanzin’s coat as she completed the task to her satisfaction.  After setting down the tool Deb looked up and handed the leading rope to me. “OK, are you ready for this?” Deb said smiling. I looked down at the rope in my hand before locking eyes with the llama that was no more than two feet in front of me. Hesitant, I said the only thing that came to mind, “Sure.”

Following my response Deb advised me I would need to walk Tanzin through the chute behind me “with some influence.” She explained once the animals neck was through a cross structure positioned near the back of the chute we would hitch the harness to the chute on three sides and begin shearing. Heeding her words, I started working my way backward through the chute guiding Tanzin with the stretch of rope between us. Becoming more aware of my intentions, Tanzin began to resist slightly in response to my efforts. With his feet planting firmly into the barn floor, I began pulling with more force with some encouragement from Deb. Luckily Tanzin gave up his resistance quickly and followed my lead through the chute. With the animal in position, I tied his leader to the front of the chute as Deb clipped ropes to the side of his harness. With moderate effort I had convinced a llama to enter a confined space for shearing. Feeling slightly more confident in my efforts, I looked at Deb and said, “Alright. What do we do next?”

Guiding him in...

Deb proceeded to explain the next phase of the shearing process was to blow the dust and dirt out of Tanzin’s hair. She advised me this step was a messy necessity to ensuring the shears remained sharp and fluid during the shearing process. Understanding, I helped Deb get the small blower set up and ready for use. I watched briefly as Deb began blowing Tanzin’s hair with the small black nozzle. Clouds of dust and light hair flew into the air en masse with every inch of coat the air touched. Realizing the air was quickly becoming saturated with debris, Deb handed me the blower and moved to open the barn door. With the door open Deb turned back to me and said, “Alright, your turn... Start from the front and blow backwards.” Following her direction I turned toward Tanzin and lifted the blower in the air. Without hesitation, I moved the air back across the animal’s body and picked up where Deb left off.

Dust. Everywhere.
Over the next few minutes I worked the air over both sides of the llama’s body as dust and hair continued filling the air. I could feel the debris settling on my skin and clothing as I worked, causing me to periodically wipe my face during the process. Eventually, the amount of dust entering the air began to wane, which provided me some indication we were nearing the next step in the process. Taking a step back from Tanzin, I held the blower at my side. “Alright, that’s good!” Deb said walking back toward the llama. Acknowledging her remark I turned off the blower and set it on the ground. Deb and I quickly cleared the blower from the space before Deb walked me to another room in the barn. Stating it was time to shear the animal, Deb opened a case and began piecing together a large shears that looked much like a massive hair trimmer. She explained the function of the blades and the need to keep them oiled during the process before lifting the shears from the table before us. “I’ll do the first few cuts, and then you can take over,” Deb said walking toward Tanzin. I nodded my head in agreement as Deb plugged in the shears and turned on the device. After applying bead of oil to the buzzing shears Deb moved toward the animal and buzzed one long line of hair off of the llama’s back. The hair came off in massive chunks that Deb scooped up and threw into a basket resting on the floor. Once finished with the first swipe, Deb proceeded to make two vertical cuts down the animal’s side. Again gathering the massive clumps of fur tumbling from the shears, Deb held a handful of the hair up before me. “Feel how soft it is,” she said smiling. I grabbed the fur and rubbed it between my fingers. In response to the silky texture of the fur I let out a surprised remark. Deb responded simply, “That’s why it makes good yarn.”

The shears

With the clump of fur still in my hand, I looked back and Deb. She directed me to throw the fur in the basket and handed me the shears. “You can take over now. Just continue where I left off.” Ready to take on the task of shearing a llama, I grabbed the still running shears and turned toward Tanzin. I took my time as the shears entered the animal’s fur and began dropping hair from Tanzin’s body. Fearful I would hurt the animal, I moved slowly down its side, watching my trim line very closely. After a few swipes at this pace, Deb came back to my side and told me it was ok to move a little faster as I cut. Explaining I was afraid I would hurt the animal, Deb lifted my hand containing the shears and placed my opposite hand against its surface. Shocked at first, I quickly realized nothing happened as a result of Deb’s actions. Unharmed, I pulled my hand away and looked closer at the shears. “They can’t hurt you,” Deb said smiling.


Relieved, I set back to work shearing with knowledge the threat of injury was removed from the process. In turn, I quickened my pace as I worked down Tanzin’s side, collecting masses of hair in baskets on the floor around me. With my comfort growing, I made quick work of the llama’s right side before beginning to shear the left side. In a matter of minutes I sheared away pounds of hair along Tanzin’s left side. As I worked I was surprised at the thin animal appearing as the thick hair disappeared from its body. Finally back to Tanzin’s rear leg, I took a step back and turned off the shears. I quickly brushed myself off and looked over at Deb and Rachael. “I think I’m done,” I said looking over my work. Deb approached my position and looked Tanzin over, taking a few swipes with the shears to clean up a few spots on his body. Turning off the shears Deb looked at me and said, “There you go! You sheared a llama!”

I took in the scope of my work as Deb and I cleaned up the area and unhitched Tanzin. After guiding the llama back out of the chute, I guided him toward the door. Deb proceeded to unharness his muzzle before Tanzin galloped out of the barn toward the rest of the llamas. Baskets in hand, the three of us exited the barn and watched the llamas briefly. Rehashing our efforts, we walked out of the fenced area and walked around the farm. Eventually, Deb took time to point out all of her gardening efforts and show us her fiber stocks and weaving projects made possible by previous shearing. As we walked, I thought about how my efforts were only a small working part of a much more complex farm system. I was amazed at the process of llama hair becoming yarn becoming fabric, and I was glad I had the chance to contribute to that process. With my task complete, Rachael and I ultimately worked our way back to our car and gave Deb our thanks before we headed home.

Today I sheared an animal. While it is still hard for me to grasp that fact, I took a lot away from the experience, and I learned a lot about the process of working with animals to make usable material. Having never served as a farm hand before, the whole experience was something new and unfamiliar, but something about getting dirty and working with livestock proved very rewarding. Like many of my “I have never…” events, I don’t know if or when I will get a chance to shear and animal again. That stated, I’m glad I made this experience a part of my “I have never…” journey. Hard work just feels good.

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