Moffat County shearing school provides instruction that’s a cut above the rest |

Moffat County shearing school provides instruction that’s a cut above the rest

Doug Rathke, left, oversees students in the Moffat County shearing school Friday, March 31, 2023 at Moffat County Fairgrounds.
Andy Bockelman/Craig Press

As any sheep rancher knows, the start of the warmer months means it’s time for haircuts, and even the most seasoned wool producer can pick up a few new ways to trim their animals more efficiently.

The Moffat County Extension Office hosted its third annual shearing school Friday, March 31, through Sunday, April 2, at Moffat County Fairgrounds.

Director Megan Stetson said the workshop brought in people from across Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Utah.

“We’re right at 25 participants. Most of them are inexperienced, in their first time with sheep and shearing,” she said.

With sheep provided by local ranches — Friday saw animals brought in by the Wellman family — the array of students learned how best to position sheep safely and cut their wool quickly and accurately.

“Some people are in ag, some aren’t. Some are refining their skills and some are hoping to get in on a shearing crew as a business or as a side gig,” Stetson said of the folks who the school attracted.

The bigger operations usually have shearers lined up, she added, though that’s not the case for all sizes of ranches.

“It’s the smaller flocks with less than 100 head, that’s where it’s harder to find people to shear,” Stetson said.” That’s why classes like this are nice because it gets some more experience.”

The Extension Office — with additional funding by Colorado Wool Growers Association — brought in seasoned shearing instructors Doug Rathke and Anthony Steinfeld.

Steinfeld operates out of Utah and Rathke is from Minnesota.

“They do a phenomenal job. They do a good job of teaching techniques, right there with them to show them where they can improve or change,” Stetson said.

Rathke said he first began working with sheep as a high school senior before learning more about the ins and outs of the industry while Down Under.

“They’ve got 10 or 20,000 in one spot down there,” he said of Australia and New Zealand. “When I took shearing school in New Zealand, I knew I wanted to be an instructor. I liked it that much.”

Rathke has been teaching shearing techniques for more than three decades and has also represented the United States in international shearing competitions.

“There’s thousands of people who come out for those,” he said. “It’s like our Super Bowl.”

Jenny Hasenbalg, of Byers, was working under Rathke’s supervision.

“I think before here, I’ve sheared maybe 30 sheep, but it’s nice to have a better handle on how to properly place them,” she said. “I was never really good at the footwork or where you’re supposed to place their legs. That’s what I never really knew before and keep working on. I love the fact that they have plenty of sheep here to work on and the ability to bring in your own machine and use it but still learn from everybody else.”

Kristen Mischker came from Durango with her husband Eric and their 2-year-old daughter Beulah.

“He went to shearing school last year in New Mexico, and this time we’re both here,” she said.

The couple owns a Navajo-Churro herd and operates the business Mesa Wool.

The activity Friday was Kristen’s first time attempting shearing.

“It’s difficult, which I was anticipating, but they give you some pro tips for handling the sheep and getting them in position,” she said. “When you start, you’re doing the belly and the teats and you don’t want to nick anything down there. It’s a lot of arteries around there.”

She said receiving guidance moment by moment made it much simpler.

“Just handling and guiding them and sitting them up on their rear end is a lot easier now. These guys are really pros and have a lot to offer,” Kristen said.

Stetson said she hopes to continue the shearing school even more in coming years, both as a way to bring more people to Craig and to assist sheep owners with their tasks.

“Hopefully we can get more small producers in the area who can bring their sheep in. It helps them out and helps me out,” she said.

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