Shear increase: Decade-old Hettinger wool class sees record attendance
HETTINGER, N.D. — If left unshorn, a sheep's wool will simply never stop growing, until the animal can no longer move.
To prevent the countryside from being littered with indolent, bleating balls of wool, it is necessary to ensure that a new crop of shearers is ready and able to keep North Dakota's sheep population svelte.
That's where the Hettinger Research Extension Center comes in, offering instruction to newcomer and veteran sheep producers on the finer points of shearing and grading wool.
"We have two different schools going," Dr. Christopher Schauer, director of North Dakota State University's Hettinger Research Extension Center, said on a crisp Sunday morning, as dozens of sheep were trucked in and out of the Adams County Fairgrounds to be shorn. The shearing facility was chock-full of students, teenagers and grown adults, the air buzzing with the sound of electric razors. "The shearing school tends to be 16-year-old through college as well as new people getting into the sheep industry. It's not necessarily just high-school and college kids."
The Hettinger sheep shearing school has been going on for 10 years and the wool classing school for about seven, and in that time the program has earned a sterling reputation on a national — and international — level.
Brian Greaves, a New Zealand sheep producer living in Canada, has 50 years of involvement in the sheep industry, yet he still sought out the Hettinger school.
"I'm a qualified shearing instructor and a shearing judge and I just wanted to upgrade my skills on the grading side of things, so I have knowledge on all aspects of the wool going right through the system," Greaves said. "They've got a great facility and an excellent setup for teaching shearing. I'm really impressed with the whole setup."
Instructors and their assistants stand by sheep as they are brought through the shearing process, escorted down a passageway, brought onto a platform where students and instructors can begin their work. The older sheep largely sit still for their haircuts—the younger ones buck and squirm a bit, adding some extra challenge to the students.
One such student, Erin Gaugler, was surprised at how important footwork is to properly shearing a sheep.
"I didn't realize how much of a dance it was with the sheep," she said. "The actual shearing itself ... is the easy part, it's the placing of your feet and moving your body to make sure the animal moves with you (that is the challenge)."
Gaugler works in Bowman County as the Agricultural and Natural Resources Extension agent there, but is studying shearing to bring that expertise back with her.
"I'm here to learn more about the production industry and learn more about the shearing aspect so as I work with the 4-H youth in our county, I will be able to offer them more skills and more expertise," Gaugler said.
Teaching shearing for 20 years, Wade Kopren is the lead shearing instructor for the school. He helps students understand the basics of shearing, detailing how they'll shear back to front, how they emphasize making the sheep comfortable as it is shorn.
Kopren has seen the school grow over his time there.
"We've been full every year, obviously this year with 24 students we are more full than we've ever been," he said. "I think NDSU has a really good reputation as being the best shearing school in the nation."
The research station has roughly 600 ewes that they shear this time of year, Kopren said, and being given an opportunity to work on sheep with fine wool is useful practical experience for prospective area shearers.
"You're learning on the sheep you're going to go out on the industry and shear, I think that's what carries the school," Kopren said. "Plus the number of instructors, it's crazy the amount of good help (we have)."
The school's good name is helped as well by a sense that the sheep industry may be about to undergo some growth.
"It seems like there's been more optimism and excitement in the sheep industry the past couple years," Schauer said. "We're seeing some expansion."
The school's capability to produce wool experts may be embodied by Lisa Surber. Once a student of the Hettinger school herself, now she is an American Sheep Industry certified wool classer, capable of grading wool all over the United States who has returned for the past several years to share her expertise with students.
"When you're on a shearing crew, you're that first line of education when it comes to wool," Surber said. "There's always a need for qualified shearers ... there's always a need for somebody who is very educated and experienced in wool. The training helps you work with producers."