The question I keep getting is this....
Are my sheep going to be ok if we shear in the cold?
I am probably going to run on a bit for this answer and hopefully I don't lose any of you but hopefully I can give you all the information you need to make an educated decision about how to handle your sheep this spring in regards to cold. So here goes...
The short answer is, SHEEP ARE JUST FINE TO SHEAR WHEN ITS COLD.
That's the easy answer. It does get more complicated then that and there are a lot of factors that play a part in making sure your sheep are ok after shearing in cold weather.
Let me just say that I have shorn sheep in VERY cold temperatures (-15) and the sheep have been fine. But most farmers who shear in cold like that follow a few protocols to make sure that their sheep are ok.
First it is important to make sure that if it is going to be very cold that your sheep remain indoors during extreme cold or inclement weather following shearing. Typically sheep will need a few days to completely adapt but if you carefully manage their environment after shearing (ie letting them out on warmer days and locking them up again at night, or leaving them in when precipitation is expected) then after about a week most sheep can be allowed to manage themselves without any issues. When I say inside, what I would hope that you have is a barn that protects them from the wind and precipitation. It DOES NOT need to be an airtight barn. I have had people line the insides of their barns with straw bales and ended up with pneumonia in their animals. They need some ventilation. My folks run our sheep in a three sided barn and hang tarps to keep out blowing snow/rain. The tarps don't cover the entire opening but prevent moisture from blowing in on them. The barn is situated in such a way that wind coming into the barn is not an issue and because of that the sheep remain dry, out of heaven drafts and happy. When I say inside I also mean that all your sheep need to be able to fit inside. Most of my clients provide too much space inside their barns and worry about overcrowding way more then necessary. Having sheep closer together helps to generate more heat. I hear quite often about folks who cannot fit all their sheep inside when in reality they will fit just fine and do better being closer together (this does not mean "on top of one another", I'm just saying that most people worry too much about their sheep being too crowded when this is not the case).
The other piece of this puzzle is food. I am frequently reminding people that you cannot look at shearing the sheep as the same as removing a sweater. Sheep do not rely on their wool to regulate body temp. Normal haired animals will grow extra coat during colder times and shed during warmer months. Sheep do not do this so we cannot assume that wool is naturally regulated to provide an optimum internal environment. Sheep are fermentation digesters so when they eat their body uses heat to help them break down their food. This heat is also what makes many sheep stop eating or limit grazing to cooler times of day during summer months. It also keeps them warm and causes them to eat constantly during colder months. Healthy animals in proper body flesh will be fine when shorn in cold temps if you provide your animals with plenty of fuel for the fire. Skinny/unthrifty animals can suffer in colder temps if not watched carefully. Typically these animals are already thin because of parasites or bullying at the feed bunk. Making sure they can get to the food they need is very important. Thinner animals are more prone to shivering which, in and of itself, is not a problem but the extra calories burned while shivering can lead to bigger problems if you can't feed them enough to keep up with their caloric needs. Goats especially need to be managed and fed well after shearing to prevent any setbacks. When I say "fed well" I do not just mean extra grain. Good high quality roughage hay is the key to warmth. Feeding smaller more frequent meals through the day can also help keep the animals happy, but remember this protocol only needs to be followed for up to a week and only during really cold days.
So to conclude with this discussion, can you shear in cold? The answer is yes. Have I known of sheep that did not do well after shearing in cold? Yes. I have shorn for one lady that had a goat get unthrifty after shearing and later die. The stress of the cold may have contributed to an underlying issue rearing its head. I have known of lambs that will crowd into the corner of a barn to get away from drafts and suffocate the lambs in the back. I have known a breeder with very thin ewes suddenly start having multiple prolapses after shearing. After discussing it with a vet it was decided that the sheep were trying to eat themselves warm and the resulting massive amount of low quality forage combined with babies made their butts just blow out from all the internal pressure. Their are definitely risks. But the average east coast sheep owner has nothing to worry about.
Every sheep breeder needs to look at their barns, feed sources and their sheep and decide what to do about shearing. Ultimately I am only doing what you ask me to. People constantly want me to make the call about shearing in cold weather. I shear in the cold all the time. I have shorn when my oil was frozen in the bottle. I shear in Iowa when every break we huddle around a heater to thaw out our hands and feet. If the sheep couldn't handle it then we would not be shearing in the cold. But they can. If you don't think your sheep are capable of handling the cold then you need to let me or your shearer know at the time of shearing that your job is going to be weather defendant. If you let me know right away that you do not want to shear in cold then I can almost plan for it or if nothing else Ill try to convince you to just move your shearing to a later time when the weather is reliably good. I am a stickler for keeping sheep on a schedule and if you cannot be prepared year to year to deal with bad weather then don't shear early.
This year is going to be really interesting. That is the only guarantee I can offer. Many folks bred earlier then normal because last year was so mild. Now they are worried about shearing during cold. Just remember before you call be to discuss rescheduling, how things look on my end. I do not shear sheep during lambing. Don't ask me to do it as its just a mess. Little lambs are fragile and the risk of trampling, mismothering, and the extra time it takes to move ewes in and out of jugs is enough to have me pulling my hair out. I will do ewes before lambing (which is ideal) or after, and when I say after I mean like a month or later after everyone is done. Sheep shear really rough right after lambing. They are hollow bellied, sticky and skinny. Waiting till the lambs are not drawing down on the ewe and large enough to fend for themselves in a pen is the best time post lambing. Plus the wool just peels off better once the sticky lanolin rises a bit.
Also understand that I can only shear so many sheep a day. Driving lowers that number. I schedule every day of the month. Let me restate that...I DO NOT TAKE A DAY OFF DURING SHEARING SEASON. I am so busy that I can't take days off. The few days I get rained out during a typical season can usually be rescheduled, but larger jobs (10 or more) can expect to wait a month or more for rescheduling. Right now I'm getting at least one call a day about rescheduling. If I have one person a day back out and want to go later then we are going to end up with a huge back up in the schedule. I often debate how to deal with this scenario. Who should suffer...the person who canceled from their previous shearing date or the person whom I normally shear during, say, mid April, who now has to wait till May because nobody wants to shear during their normal March time frame. This may become a big problem and I'm trying to avoid it by scheduling everyone early to lock in the schedule but that also means that if you need to reschedule your gonna wait a long time to get back on the list. This is the unfortunate reality of my work. Please understand that I am gonna bust my butt to get to everyone and do the best job I can all spring. But I just need all my folks to bust their butts and do everything in their power to be ready for me on the day we scheduled. Cancellations are a huge inconvenience but I ultimately want to do what's best for your animals. If you feel your animals can't handle the cold then you might want to seriously consider moving your date to a more reliably warm month (April or December) because worst case scenarios are the norm in this line of work. I have come to expect that if you can't keep your sheep dry then it WILL be raining on the day you schedule with me. If you dont think your sheep can handle cold then the day we plan to shear WILL be the coldest day of that week/month. Plan ahead, learn from every shearing experience and strive to improve your facilities every chance you get because that is where you will save the most time and effort in dealing with your sheep and help you shear them at the ideal time every year.
Here is a picture from my calendar from last year...please just keep this in mind.