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Growing Clean Wool Fleece: Part 1

Updated: Mar 29

A current growing pain we have is how to economically keep the sheep’s fleece as clean as possible. Unfortunately, the nature of wool means that once vegetable matter (hay in our case) gets in there it is practically impossible to remove. Our Belfast Mini Mill equipment does remove some of it as a by-product of processing, but it definitely has limits, and it definitely doesn’t remove all of it! It is meant to start with relatively clean wool fleece. So, the goal becomes keeping the VM (vegetable matter) out from the start.

You might guess that this is not going to be as simple as it sounds. On our farm, we have the equipment to produce round bales. This means our feeders need to be able to accommodate the bales we create. Most of the commercially available standard feeders, including the basket feeders we use, result in hay falling on top of the animal as they eat the hay. This is exactly what you don’t want when the fibre is important to you.

But clean wool fibre isn’t the only consideration when selecting a feeder - the second most important factor (or perhaps first for Bryan/Dad) is wastage. Hay is expensive and we want the sheep to eat it, not waste it. Some of the standard commercial feeders might do a better job than our basket feeder at keeping the VM in their fleece down, but they do a worse job when it comes to wastage. We also need to be able to pick up our feeders and move them, as we move our sheep around quite a bit at all times of the year so that is another consideration that comes into play.

You would be quite right in wondering why most standard commercial feeders have these problems. Why haven’t the big manufacturers solved all of these issues in one feeder model? I would suggest that this is due to the low value placed on wool. Farms have been operating in a context in which their wool has been worth very little for a long period of time; today it continues to be true for many that selling the wool doesn’t even pay for the cost of the shearer.  So, the focus has been on inexpensive solutions that reduce waste. If we here at Borderlands didn’t care about the fleece, we would likely be pretty happy with our basket feeders.  

So, what’s the plan? Well, we are attacking this on a couple of fronts. First, we try to coat our animals. I’m going to write a second blog about that next week. Second, we have a couple of different ideas for how we can modify our basket feeders to work better for us that we are going to try this season. Third, we are investigating one of the premium hay feeders that claims to have solved this problem (if you are wondering why we didn’t go with this option in the first place, a new basket feeder is roughly $850 while the premium feeder is $6,000. We have six basket feeders….)  

Getting the fleece cleaner is important, mostly so Mom/Beverly can stop skirting so much (she spends countless hours picking hay out of wool) but also so we can get our finished products coming out of the wool mill as free of VM as possible. No matter what we do, we will never get to 100% “clean” but I think that is okay. Processing wool at this scale is an artisanal endeavor and there are going to be elements of our final products that show the handmade nature of our operation. We are fibre farmers creating from a natural material that lives outside. So, when someone is knitting along and they come to a bit of straw in the yarn, I hope it makes them think of us and our sheep here on the farm, working hard to create something from this wonderful fibre we know as wool.

Image 1: Alex, a Polypay ewe, at the feeder. Image 2 & 3: One of our new Targhee rams.

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