MILES CITY, Mont. - Mike Schuldt has been shearing sheep for 28 years, and a grant through the Growth Through Agriculture program last November made his vision of a mobile sheep shearing operation a reality.
Governor Steve Bullock and the Agriculture Development Council announced twelve agricultural businesses and organizations were awarded a portion of the $290,000 in grants through the program, which was established by the legislature to strengthen and diversify Montana’s agricultural industry by developing new agricultural produces and processes.
Schuldt Services was awarded a $20,000 grant for a mobile sheep shearing trailer based out of Miles City, Mont. The funds have purchased a gooseneck trailer with materials to construct a modern shearing trailer and a hydraulic wood press.
“My wife and I are in business as Schuldt Services, and we do sheep shearing, grading and other ag business consulting activities,” Schuldt says. “We applied for a grant to build a sheep shearing trailer so that we can better meet the needs of the sheep ranchers in Montana.”
The trailer is 28 feet long, has open sides and is built on a custom, commercially produced, trailer of durable steel construction designed to international standards. Schuldt Services hopes the mobile sheep shearing trailer will create a higher quality and more marketable wool clip, and offers a consistently better place to work.
Shearing since 1988, the husband and wife duo established Schuldt Services in 2005 to provide professional wool harvesting, classing and marketing assistance. They also coordinate work for other independent contractors, provide appropriate livestock handling equipment, and develop and design equipment to best meet today’s market.
“Numbers have been declining over time leading to a decreasing number of sheep shearers,” Schuldt says. “Through the Montana State University service, we have held schools since 2001 to try and train more sheep shearers. I currently just shear in my spare time and can do about 6,000 to 7,000 each year.”
A skilled sheep shearer can routinely shear 120 to 200 head of sheep per day, depending on the size, condition of wool and skill of the shearer.
Overall, the wool industry has declined in the past several decades. In 2015, 27.1 million pounds of U.S. wool was produced, according to the American Sheep Industry Association. In 2012, there were 88,338 sheep farms and ranches in the U.S. Total sheep operations in Montana were 1,338, compared to 1,798 in South Dakota and 661 in North Dakota.
Through genetics, sheep producers in the U.S. tend to produce a dual-purpose animal - one that is valued for both meat and fur to diversify its economic potential.
Nels Larson manages 120 breed ewes 10 miles south of Missoula, Mont., on land that his family homesteaded in the 1880s and has seen firsthand the decline of sheep ranchers in the western part of the state.
“You need to find a niche if you want to make any ag operation work, find a niche that’s not currently filled and pray that it’s functional,” says Larson. “The learning curve can be brutal.”
As of the first of this year there were 5.32 million head of sheep produced in all 50 states, with the highest sheep producing states located west of the Mississippi River. Total sheep and lambs in Montana is 230,000, compared to 255,000 in South Dakota and 73,000 in North Dakota. In the U.S., sheep production generates more than $37 million dollars each year. Wool is a renewable crop that must be sheared annually, and more than five million sheep are shorn annually on more than 68,000 farms across the nation.
“I’m here because I can be, and it’s the last gasp for this place and for me,” Larson says. “Animal husbandry is wild and often stressful, but never boring. If you’re bored then you’re doing something wrong.”