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  • Writer's pictureGwen

Growing Clean Wool Fleece: Part 2 Coating Sheep

Updated: Mar 14

If you follow us on social media, you may have noticed that some of our sheep are wearing coats at this time of year. We coat our sheep to keep the hay and straw (vegetable matter or VM) out of their fleece. A coat is exactly what it sounds like. It slips over the neck of the sheep to cover their back and sides with leg ties to keep it in place. We haven’t found that the coats are very common on sheep farms here in Canada (when we bought them from the U.S. company, they commented that we were their first Canadian customer) so this might be your first exposure to them. I will say right at the beginning of this blog that the coats are not a perfect solution and definitely have pros and cons.

The main positive of the coats is obvious – when we get it on (and keep it on) while the wool is still short, it dramatically reduces the contamination of the fibre. In short, it does what it is supposed to do and we are able to give Mom clean fibre to use in the Wool Mill. A secondary positive is that coating the animals is far cheaper for us than switching to different hay feeders or a different system (see Part I for more info here). The third positive is that the sheep do not seem bothered by the coats. There are some initial high steps from some as they realize there is something touching their leg but within seconds of us putting it on, they have stopped reacting to the coat.

These positives are why we still continue to try to coat our animals each season. I say season because we do not put the coats on until the fall, which means they are not wearing a coat during the heat of the summer and they are not out on pasture with a coat on. Although the coats do breathe, the slow growth of the wool in the summer means it is not really necessary for us to coat them at this point. Yes, we are going to get more VM in their fleece than we would if we had them in coats year-round, but this seems like an appropriate trade-off so that we don’t need to worry about their coat getting them caught on a fence line or something like that. Our plan has us putting on the coats in the Fall, swapping out for larger sizes as the wool grows, and then removing them when they are sheared in April.

Unfortunately, the solution of the coats is a not a perfect one and there are some significant drawbacks. First, the coats themselves are universal which means Mom/Beverly has been tasked with sewing as we try to make them work for us and our breed of sheep. She started by switching out the fixed leg straps to adjustable ones with clips on one side so we could loosen and tighten. This has made taking the coats on and off much easier, but it still requires a handling system or two people. Now we are looking at making the neckline more adjustable for a more personalized fit which will mean again pulling Mom from the Wool Mill to spend time on her sewing machine.  

These adjustments have become necessary because unless you get the fit on the animal exactly right, the coats become a bit of a management issue. As we do chores, we are regularly adjusting the coats on some of the animals in which the fit is not 100% right. In some cases, we put a coat on that was too big and we needed to switch it out, but in other cases it just doesn’t quite fit them in that it keeps sliding off to one side or the way the animal moves keeps resulting in them stepping out of it.  

I should point out that the sheep do not stand still while you do this (with the exception of Peanut and maybe Brienne, most sheep don’t stand still for anything), so it means you are trying to grab them to hold them still or make an adjustment while they are moving. I really don’t like doing this outside of our handling system as I don’t want to be accidentally injured as a result of trying to fix a coat, however, it is much faster to try to do it this way especially if you can call someone down to the barns to help you. We haven’t set up our handling system to be easily accessible through the winter months due to our pen system so it would be time-consuming to get the sheep to the handling system and back.

That brings me to probably our most significant struggle with the coats. Dealing with them is time-consuming. It takes a lot of time to put them on, switch them out, and provide adjustments. It also basically requires two people (Brody and I) which means coordination and planning as we both work off-farm full-time. I recently commented to Mom and Dad that I could never see sheep coats taking off in the sheep industry for exactly this reason – I don’t see this as a practical solution beyond the small fibre flock. We definitely struggle with getting the coats on in the fall and switching them out as the fibre grows through the winter – as I write this, we have 12 animals that we didn’t get coats on this year.

A final negative for me is that the swapping out requires time in between because the coats go through the washing machine (yes, we have a separate washing machine and dryer for farm stuff). We don’t have enough coats in all of the different sizes, so when it is taken off one sheep it is likely needed for another; it gets washed in between wears which then complicates the coordination of this task. If it sounds like I am complaining a lot about these coats, I am! Somehow, the main responsibility for getting these coats on and off has fallen to me and I am not doing as well with it as I need to be. I will continue to try, though, as I have first-hand seen the difference they make. I know from being in the Wool Mill with Mom how important clean fleece is and how much we really need to get these coats on to get our fleece as clean as possible. Next year, I hope to report back that we had every animal coated in the fall as scheduled. Wish me luck.

Image 1: Ewe sheep at their feeders. Image 2: Peanut's neck full of vegetable matter (VM). Image 3: Ewe sheep at their feeders

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