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Shear Success

By: Susan Muther | HaSu Ranch Alpacas

Link : www.hasu.biz

Copyright : 3/2007
Alpaca fleece can be quite valuable. It is cherished by those all over the world who appreciate luxurious garments. As alpaca breeders, our focus is on the quality of the fiber produced by our alpacas. Part of that focus is treating that fiber as the valuable commodity it is. One of the most important days of an alpaca breeder's year is shearing day. Shearing day is when the precious fiber, the reason alpacas are owned and bred, is harvested. Alpacas are sheared only once a year and produce on average between 5 -10 lbs of fiber but only 2.5 to 7 lbs of that fiber is prime quality fiber. This fiber is the product of a year's worth of work; therefore, a breeder will want to be especially careful when harvesting it. To complicate matters, most herds today contain animals that vary in the quality of fiber they produce. Therefore, it is important to know which fiber came from which alpaca. It is also the opportunity to measure the success of a farm's breeding program by gathering such statistical information as histograms, shear weights, and eventually ABV's, an Ideal Alpaca Community designation meaning Alpaca Breeding Value, which helps breeders make educated breeding choices. Of course, another aspect of shearing day is the need to protect our alpacas from unnecessary stress or injury. Shearing the heavy, sweltering fleece may prevent an alpaca from heat stress as the summer months approach but it is a frightening experience for most alpacas, especially the youngest, who have little or no experience with the confinement and loud, buzzing shearing tools. A well organized shearing day should be a part of every well organized breeding program to ensure the success of the program and the welfare of the alpacas.

Groom Your Pastures, Not Your Alpacas

Shearing day preparation begins long before the day the shearers arrive. To save time and to ensure a quality fleece harvest, one needs to first examine the pasture and feeding set-up. If vegetable matter contamination is very bad, your fleeces will have little commercial value. Prevention is the best cure. As an example, in the North East, we are plagued with burdock, a plant that produces a huge Velcro-like burr. We often find it along our fence line and even in our hay bales. Therefore, our husbandry protocol includes a regular patrol of the field and fence line. Since our goal is to get as much fiber as possible from our yearly shearing, cutting fiber in order to remove burrs is akin to a farmer pulling up corn in order to remove weeds. Instead, a smart breeder prevents damage to the cash crop at the outset.

Proper management of feed can also reduce the amount of vegetable matter contaminating the fiber. At HaSu, we always examine the hay before placing it in the feeders. We also use plastic feeder grates that fit edge to edge within our knee-level hay feeders. These prevent the alpacas from getting anything but their noses in the hay. We advise against using overhead feeders as they lead to contaminated fleeces. With each tug of the hay, the alpacas below are met with a rain of hay and debris that ends up on their heads, neck and back.

After all these precautions have been taken, it will still be necessary to inspect each alpaca to prepare it for shearing. The best way is to handpick vegetable matter from the fleece. There are a variety of other methods that are less time consuming but most of these tend to temporarily remove lock structure and crimp, a particularly bad idea for a competition fleece. 

Preparing Your Herd for Shearing

Several days before our scheduled shearing we move our alpacas to a dry, clean barn to ensure the fleece is in tip top shearing shape. By doing so, we reduce the amount of dust and mud in the fleeces and ensure the alpacas are dry at shearing time. Dust or mud can add weight to the fiber thus giving inaccurate yield weights and it can drastically shorten the life of the shearer's blades. Wet fiber can make shearing a real hassle and take twice as long.
Having finished preparing and inspecting each alpaca, the next order of business is determining the shearing order. Common practice is to shear the lighter colored alpacas first and to shear the highest quality animals first within their color group. Shearing the lighter colored animals first helps prevent color contamination and shearing the finest animals first helps prevent quality contamination. Start by shearing the whites first and move through the color spectrum finally ending with your blacks. Mixed colored animals can be sheared among the rose-grays or the silver-grays depending on the amount of brown found in their fiber. The competition fleeces will be sheared first within their color group and will be handled differently than an average fleece. This is your moneymaker, treat it as such! Because the males tend to resist and put up the biggest fight, we shear the males within their color groups, but after the females of that group. This helps to avoid stressing the other animals more than necessary. Take the time to establish a shearing order that will ensure the protection of your investment.

Those who are members of the Ideal Alpaca Community have the privilege of using a new online shearing tool to facilitate this organization process. This tool was developed by HaSu's sister company, BreedWorks, in conjunction with Yocom-McColl and the Ideal Alpaca Community in order to create more sophisticated fiber management and measurement in our industry. A unique feature of this tool is the extensive histogram provided by Yocom-McColl for each fiber sample submitted through the IAC. These histograms will test 13 different fiber qualities, 9 more than the standard histogram, and the data obtained will be used to create a database for selective breeding science that is on par with the breeding science of other top livestock industries. As a result, the alpaca industry will be more successful in improving the fiber quality of the industry at large.

Preparing Your Facilities for Shearing

Once the shearing order of the alpacas has been determined, the shearing area needs to be prepared. . You will need 3 cards of identification for each animal: 1 for the blanket bag, 1 for the seconds bag, and one for the fiber sample bag for Yocom-McColl. Along with your farm name, each card should have the alpaca's name, ARI number, date of birth, and the alpaca's color. These 3 cards will be placed in shearing order so that as your animals are sheared and the cards are placed in the appropriate bags the cards for the next alpaca to be sheared will be ready to be used. This helps with verification; does the animal that has been brought to the shearing area match the next stack of cards? The cards will also need to signify if the fleece should receive special treatment, i.e., is it a competition fleece? At HaSu, we roll our competition fleeces, as they come off the alpaca, in vinyl table cloths. This helps to keep the fleece intact and clean.

The next step is to examine the physical process of shearing day. Do you have an adequate place for shearing the alpacas? Does it have enough room for several people and a skittish animal? Will it be easy to move animals in and out of the area? Will the shearing surface be easy to sweep clean after each animal? How will the alpacas be moved to and from the shearing? It is the breeder's responsibility to provide a shearing area that is under cover, adequate in space, lighting, and ventilation and allows for the proper handling of the animals and their fiber. The area must be clean of all contaminants and have a solid surface; dirt, gravel and grass are not acceptable. Sheets of plywood can be used in lieu of permanent flooring but poly tarps are not good substitutes. It is always a good idea to communicate with your shearers well in advance of shearing to determine their specific needs and to confirm that your plans will meet those needs. Will your shearers use stretchers or tables? You will also need to have plans for the handling of the fiber once it is shorn. Will you have someone skirt (hand pick) each fleece at the time of shearing? If so, where will that occur? Where will the fiber be stored once it has been skirted? To ensure the day runs smoothly and as quickly as possible, we enlist our helpers well in advance of the actual day. And once these helpers arrive, everyone needs to know their assigned tasks before the work begins. Below is a suggested outline of tasks for shearing and the number of people required to fulfill those tasks, though, we do not include tasks associated with skirting in this checklist. Also, to make our day go quickly, we have 2 shearing stations set up, so while one alpaca is being shorn another is being readied. Once the shearer finishes one alpaca he merely needs to move to the second station to begin the next.

Handlers for setting up alpacas and manage ropes- 2 people
Shearer's assistant - 1 person
Bagger and sweeper - 1-2 people
Handlers for haltering and leading alpacas to station - 1-2 people
Coordinator- oversees the entire day and confirms shearing order - 1 person

Since it is critical to shear your alpacas in order, you will need to prevent any mistaken identities. Either someone intimately familiar with the alpacas must be assigned to halter and lead them to the shearing area. Or they have to be clearly tagged and penned so that someone else can effectively follow the shearing order. The shearers will simply shear an animal given to them; they will not be questioning your organization. You and your staff will need to work as a highly organized team, each member understanding their job and its requirements before the day begins. There will also need to be arrangements made for the animals once they have been shorn. Where are they released? Do they go back to the pens they were in or are they released into designated pastures?


Your final checklist will be for the equipment and supplies for the day. Here is a sample checklist for you to consider:

" Halters and leads
" Alpaca Name Tags
" Alpaca Shearing Cards (3 per alpaca: 1 for blanket bag, 1 for seconds bag, 1 for fiber sample bag)
" Clean old socks to place over the nose and mouth of a spitting alpaca
" Brooms or vacuum for cleaning area after each animal is sheared
" Large clear plastic bags for collection of blankets and seconds
" Small sandwich baggies for collection of fiber samples
" Garbage cans
" Rulers and scales for measuring fleece
" Paperwork for record keeping, checklists for all personnel keeping track of alpaca movement in and out of shearing area; extra pens and pencils.
" First aid kits for alpacas and humans
" Table for skirting; can be made from sawhorses and plywood.
" Anything requested by shearers as emergency supplies
" Refreshments for shearers, personnel and visitors, if applicable
At our alpaca farm, shearing is one of the most exciting days of the year. Each year we learn more about how to refine the process. This year we look forward to an even more smooth and enjoyable day. We open our farm to the local community and invite anyone interested to attend. The energy and excitement around the shearing process create a festival-like atmosphere.

If you are shearing this year, we wish you a wonderful and productive day. And as we say at HaSu Ranch Alpacas, May the Fleece Be with You!

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