Spring shearing

A look at how the sheep-trimming process has changed through the years

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Each spring Clair Villard makes the trip north of Craig to the area where his son Albert has gathered sheep for shearing.

He's been involved with sheep and spring shearing for some time.

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Early days

"We used to shear right here, and that was 60 years ago," Clair Villard said. "The first time, I was 14 years old. We had an eight-man crew then."

Shearing remains important to the sheep industry today, but much has changed since Clair Villard helped toss the wool up to a parapet near the corrals, where it would be dropped into a wool-bag for shipment to town.

Looking forward to his 62nd class reunion this year and "pushing 80 years old with a short stick," Clair Villard recalls watching shearing crews work with hand tools before the business became automated.

"I remember when I was a small kid, they did it with blades," he said. "That was four or five miles west of here on the land Dean Visintainer owns now."

Clair Villard said there were so many sheep in Northwest Colorado back then, that shearing crews never had to leave the state for work.

Elk Springs was, and still is, a gathering place where ranchers drive their herds to meet with shearing crews each spring.

Villard's mother wintered the herd in western Moffat County.

"I was too small to remember when my mother sheared by Elk Springs," he said. "But a lot of big sheepmen sheared at Elk Springs. Men like Bill Jenson and Paul and Ralph Pitchforth."

In those days the crews were all locals, including the Roberts brothers from Maybell, Villard said. Jerry ran the crew, and everybody worked at shearing the sheep.

Modern times

Things have changed these days as shearing companies roam the country with large, nomadic crews that stay in one place only long enough to lighten the load on a sheep's back for the summer.

A caravan of trucks, trailers and campers begins the process, turning off the highway and circling the wagons. Setting up camp with the precision that only months on the road can make look easy.

Sebastian Uvuria Larralde runs a shearing crew based out of Galeton, north of Greeley.

The 14-man outfit left eastern Colorado in February and will be on the road driving between three states for 10 months before returning home.

"We're two months on the road now shearing ewes," Larralde said. "When we finish with the ewes, we'll keep shearing lambs all summer and fall."

The shearing operations take Larralde and his crew to Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.

They live in campers and buy food once a week or when they get near a town.

"We shear about 1,600 a day," he said. "When it rains, we stop and sleep."

Larralde comes from the Basque region of Spain, where sheep and sheepmen have been raised for hundreds of years.

He said he started in the business by herding sheep in 1972, and Larralde is quick to point out many natives of the Basque region of Spain are sheepmen and managers of large sheep ranches across America.

Larralde makes sure things are operating smoothly at the shearing trailer, forcing more sheep into the clippers as the already sheared animals escape down a ramp.

As the wool is separated from the animals, the two go different directions.

Large plastic tarps on the ground prevent contamination from dirt and debris as the wool is processed out one side of the trailer where it is gathered and inserted into a compactor.

Normally, the sheep would exit the opposite side of the shearing trailer and run through a chute to be branded and sprayed with insecticide, Albert Villard said, but that would take more help than is available today. Everyone was already working without a break to keep the sheep moving.

The Villards will shear 1,200 sheep this spring, with the help of Larralde and his crew.

Wool bundles are trucked into Craig to the warehouse, where they will be shipped to a wool buyer when the time and price are right. The money made from the sale will pay for a part of the ranch's bills this year.

Albert Villard has one of his grandmother's old ledgers, showing prices and costs of running a sheep ranch before even his father Clair was a sheepman.

"The wool about paid all the bills back then," he said. "The prices are getting better, but I wish it was worth a lot more."

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