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Family of Wisconsin Sheep Shearers Reflects on Novel Role in Midwest Farming
Wisconsin Ag Connection - 03/28/2024

Jerome Huber remembers the first time he sheared a sheep.

“My first job out was nine head for the neighbor. Took me all afternoon,” he recalled in his Oxford farmhouse.

Huber was 15 years old. Too young for a driver’s license, he had to get rides back and forth to jobs across southern Wisconsin.

Today, Huber can shear the same number of sheep in less than 30 minutes and has passed the skill down to his sons and grandsons. While his shearing business has grown over roughly 70 years, the demand for workers like him is much higher these days.

Fewer people are becoming professional shearers in Wisconsin, where about 78,000 sheep and lambs live. Huber and his family are now rare specialists in the state’s farming industry.

“The need for sheep shearers is at an all-time high around the country and globally,” said Todd Taylor, a manager of the sheep research unit for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Taylor said the physical demands of the job, mixed with experienced shearers retiring, is contributing to the shortage.

Specialized skill

Sheep shearing requires training and practice to become efficient. Taylor said the Hubers are masters of the trade.

In February, Joe Huber traveled to shear a herd of 400 sheep with his two sons. They completed the job in two days, averaging about 15 sheep an hour.

At his peak, Jerome Huber would shear 20,000 sheep a year and estimates the family in total has sheared over a million sheep to date.

“There is a technique to it. It’s not just lay a sheep down and start shearing,” Taylor said. “There is a proper way to do it so that you can efficiently and safely get the wool off in one piece.”

The job requires a crew of people. A wrangler plucks sheep from the herd that can weigh hundreds of pounds. A wool handler gathers and rolls the wool. The wool comes off sheep in a single piece and weighs on average 5 to 15 pounds.

Shearing school

Sheep must be sheared, the Hubers and Taylor said. Less wool helps sheep deliver lambs in more sanitary conditions and makes it easier for lambs to feed from their mothers.

Joe Huber has been shearing for 43 years. He teaches a sheep shearing course with Taylor each year in Arlington. Huber said around 16 to 20 people typically sign up. One or two go on to become sheep shearers.

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