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Sheep shearing is like a slow-motion wrestling match and haircut. Photo taken April 1, 2017, at Volga, S.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

How the sheep were shorn: Part-time jobs go full steam this time of year

VOLGA, S.D. — Sheep shearing is a chore, but the weather on April 1 was so balmy that the whole thing was pleasant for the sheep and the people on a Brookings County farm.

Shearing is a part-time job for Ronny Parmely, assistant manager for the South Dakota State University Seed Testing Laboratory in Brookings. He shears evenings and Saturdays and lambs out about 125 head of sheep that are a combination of purebred Southdown and weather-type market lambs (the equivalent of a steer in beef animals).

Parmely, 65, grew up raising sheep on his parents' farm 25 miles south of Miller. His children started showing sheep with Brookings police officer Gordon Miller who raised purebred Southdowns.

"My kids started showing with (Miller) and moved out onto an acreage and have been doing it ever since," he says.

"I enjoy working with livestock," Parmely says. "I enjoy sheep. The people I meet, they become friends instead of customers, more so."

On this particular weekend he spent a couple of hours at Stoney Hill Farms, a sheep enterprise run by the Mark Pates family near Volga, about two miles west of Lake Campbell. (Mark is a brother of this reporter.)

Parmely and his shearing buddy, Dan Fitzpatrick, recognize that the number of sheep in the region is declining. Fitzpatrick, 37, shears 1,700 sheep a year. Typically, the price is about $4.75 per head, he says, at a clip of about five head per minute.

Fitzpatrick grew up on a sheep farm north of Foley, Minn., near St. Cloud, went to school at SDSU, and got a job doing computer programming.

"My dad used to shear, and I have four brothers who shear," he says. "It's pretty hard work; it keeps you warm in the winter. It's an important part of the economy."

For the Pates family, sheep are an opportunity to keep connected with production agriculture even as they work with jobs in town. The family has a 150- to 180-ewe flock as a secondary income. Mark Pates says this was a good winter, with lots of twins and some triplets. Weather warmed when lambing started, which was lucky. They had about 180 percent lamb crop, which is above the national average of about 120 percent.

The Pates' market lambs are in the Pipestone (Minn.) Lamb and Wool Program and have locked in a cash price. Their colleagues raise a total of 35,000 to 40,000 lambs. For the first time, the group is working on an antibiotic-free program.

They sheer twice a year — once in January for the older ewes, and once when it's warmer in March for ewe lambs that will replace cull ewes.