Elite sheep shearers compete at stock show

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Nowhere in America could you see better sheep shearing than at the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, Jan. 27 in Rapid City, S.D. The 10-day event hosts the National Sheep Shearing Contest, an all-day affair, which this year dr...

Belt buckle
Opstedahl went home with the grand champion professional sheep shearing belt buckle from the National Sheep Shearing contest, held Jan. 27 with the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo in Rapid City, S.D.

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- Nowhere in America could you see better sheep shearing than at the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo, Jan. 27 in Rapid City, S.D.

The 10-day event hosts the National Sheep Shearing Contest, an all-day affair, which this year drew 18 elite professionals -- a pretty close-knit group of friends -- and more intermediates and novices to compete for top honors in the event that attracts hundreds.

Loren Opstedahl, 42, of Piedmont, S.D., took top honors this year in the professional category, taking home a belt buckle designed for the honor. Opstedahl says it takes one thing -- practice -- to win the competition, and he says he gets plenty of it. He estimates that his crew handles about 60,000 sheep a year, serving some 100 or so clients, and runs from November to May, with the "big run" coming up.

Winning in Rapid City makes Opstedahl part of a two-man U.S. delegation to the World Sheep Shearing Contest, scheduled for Ireland in May 2014.

The competition also included a wool handling contest, won by Emily Chamelin of Westminster, Md., who also won the intermediate sheep shearing category.


Leann Brimmer of Biddle, Mont., is one of the main coordinators of the National Sheep Shearing Contest. Brimmer is a professional wool handler and classer, a veteran of three world championships as a member of the U.S. national team, who does most of her work in New Mexico and Australia, among other places.

Sheep shearing is a display of both speed and accuracy, Brimmer says.

In preliminary rounds, competitors shear three sheep apiece. Finalists shear 10 sheep. The "machine" cut competition involves a set of shears that probably would cost about $2,500, just for the basic gear, Opstedahl says. (There also is competition for "blade" shearers, a display of non-mechanized shearing as it was done for thousands of years before machines.)

Professional sheep shearers wear special leather or felt moccasins, mostly made in New Zealand or Australia, as well as distinctive pants. The black or navy double-layered pants are low-slung and slim-fitting with small splits at the ankles. The special moccasins offer traction on the plywood boards, which are used as a floor for the work. Rubber-soled tennis shoes would slip in the lanolin grease associated with sheep's wool.

The best of the pros shear a sheep in about a minute and a half. They are penalized on "the board" for "second cuts" -- having to go back over the same piece. When the animals and fleeces are inspected, the competitors are docked or even disqualified for nicks.

The pros

Professional sheep shearers generally are thought to be people who consistently would shear 100 sheep in an eight-hour work day. Shearers receive about $3 per lamb sheared in this part of the country. Most of the top professionals in Rapid City boast personal records of 200, 300 and even 400 sheep in a day. They know their record down to the sheep, the day, the type of sheep they were shearing.

Once the sheep are sheared, there is also the handling of the wool, which is a separate but closely related activity.


Brimmer says the handler is sorting wool for market. "It's a contest of what we do every day," she says of the event. The competitor takes the wool away from a shearer and takes out lesser-valued wool. They sort fleeces according to the "micron" or fineness. "Anything that's short and tender comes out," Brimmer says, noting that belly wool and "eye-clip" comes off because the short hair fibers don't take dye well.

One of the big personalities at the sheep shearing contest is Curtis Olson of Broadus, Mont., who has been a professional sheep shearer and still conducts annual seminars on the topic for North Dakota State University's Hettinger Research Extension Center, as well as for South Dakota State University in Brookings. Olson is one of the people who helped bring the national show to Rapid City in 2012. It had historically been at the Denver Stock Show.

Olson served as an emcee for much of the Rapid City event. "I taught most of these guys how to shear," he says with satisfaction.

The other member of the U.S. team at the world contest will be selected later, based on an accumulated showing at various contests still to come. Cheryl Schuldt of Miles City, Mont., who helps tabulate results at the National Sheep Shearing Contest, says some of those points can be accumulated in a shearing contest at the 63rd Miles City Bucking Horse Sale, May 16 to 18.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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