Shear Wisdom: Generations of Stitzels Keep Busy Shearing Sheep

10/27/2012 7:00 AM
By Sue Bowman Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

FLEETWOOD, Pa. — Some folks count sheep to help them go to sleep, but not Randy Stitzel of Fleetwood, Berks County, Pa. When Stitzel counts sheep, he’s tracking how many of them he’s sheared.

At age 56, Randy Stitzel represents the third generation of his family who’ve made sheep shearing their calling. His 39-year-old son, Chris, is the fourth Stitzel generation of shearers and Chris’ 8-year-old son has shown an interest in continuing the tradition.

It all started back in 1896 with Randy’s great-grandfather, George Stitzel, a Berks County dairy farmer and self-taught veterinarian. In those days, sheep shearing involved the laborious use of hand-held shears. Those shears eventually gave way to a hand-cranked machine and, finally, to the electric clippers used today.

Randy’s grandfather was unable to participate in the family’s shearing business due to injuries he sustained in a fall from a hayloft as a young man, so George Stitzel taught his craft to neighbor Luther Schucker to fill the gap until Randy’s father, Carl, was ready to start shearing. Carl’s shearing career spanned 37 years until 1988, when Randy, who had begun shearing as a teenager, took over the customers, shearing 675 sheep that year.

The business has grown since then. These days, Randy, whose works a fulltime job at a Reading, Pa., area battery manufacturing plant, shears sheep with the help of Chris, who is self-employed, shearing being his primary job. Chris has been shearing for 19 years.

Their work now takes them to four states other than Pennsylvania — Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and New York.

Their business has doubled in size over the last five years. As of Oct. 15, he and Chris had sheared a total of 6,800 head. “And I’m not done yet!” Randy said.

Despite relying solely on word-of-mouth for their advertising, the Stitzels currently have a roster of 708 customers, ranging from large flocks to tiny ones.

Once upon a time, most sheep shearing took place in spring, as flock owners sought to harvest a winter’s worth of wool and sell it or use it for crafting woolen goods themselves.

Now, the Stitzels find that shearing has become a multi-season business; in fact, their off-season grows shorter every year. Randy has seen his business expand to include Angora goats, which get sheared twice per year, as well as alpacas and their young, known as creas.

September is typically the month for Angora goat shearing. This year, Randy said he’s stretched that season to mid-October to accommodate customer demand and wet weather conditions. Since goats don’t have the body fat of sheep, they need to re-grow a warm coat before cold weather sets in. Likewise, Stitzel slates his shearing of alpacas and creas for August so they can regain sufficient wool to survive the winter.

Annual sheep shearings normally kick off just before the arrival of spring. Randy said he’s been able to start shearing as early as February at some farms with heated barns. He generally wraps up his spring rounds during June so that his customers have their fleeces available for the Chester, Lancaster and Berks County wool pools, which are the last of the season. For customers who go to the annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival in early May, Stitzel tries to schedule their shearing two to three weeks ahead of that event so that they have time to prepare their wool for sale.

After taking most of the summer off, other than doing the occasional flock maintenance work on hooves and administering wormer, Randy gets back to clipping sheep just after Labor Day and continues to the week before Thanksgiving. Winter shearing then picks up in January before lambing, when some flock owners like to have their ewes “crotched out” to promote lambing ease. However, he said that increasingly, flock owners are finding it cost-effective to have him shear the whole sheep at that time, rather than having him return in late spring to shear the remaining wool.

He doesn’t recommend winter shearing for sheep that are in an unprotected setting, including shelters with a north-facing exposure.

An Afternoon of Shear Wisdom

A recent autumn afternoon found Randy Stitzel at Wen-Crest Farm in South Lebanon Township, Lebanon County, Pa., to shear the Bluefaced Leicester yearlings owned by 15-year-old Nick Wenger.

While the majority of the sheep the Stitzels shear are Dorsets, Hampshires and Suffolks or crossbreeds thereof with low- to medium-quality wool, on this particular afternoon he was tackling a breed with a crimped wool that is highly prized by hand spinners for its texture and softness. Bluefaced Leicesters are a fairly rare heritage breed and Lebanon County 4-H Livestock Club member Nick Wenger obtained his first ewe four years ago by winning a contest with an essay about why he wants to own the breed. That ewe is the grand dam of the lambs Stitzel was shearing.

Stitzel dispenses a wealth of wisdom as he shears. He pointed out that young sheep like the Bluefaced Leicesters are called yearlings not because they’ve reached the age of one year, but because they leave their “lamb” stage when they develop their first set of permanent teeth. And, since this was their first time being sheared, their fleece is known as “virgin wool.”

“A hand spinner will love this length,” Stitzel counseled Wenger, noting that the Leicesters’ wool should be at least 3 to 4 inches long.

“This stuff you take down to Maryland (to the annual Sheep and Wool Festival), not the wool pool,” Stitzel advised him, noting its high value. Nick’s mother, Bonnie Wenger, explained that Nick already had a buyer for this wool — a hand spinner from Lancaster County, Pa.

As the shearing proceeded, Stitzel and Wenger discussed sheep prices, with Stitzel pointing out that after a period of low returns, “even older sheep are selling higher right now, and it’ll only get better with what’s happening out West,” referring to the impact of the drought.

Stitzel also said prices at the wool pools have been better recently — up to 85 or 90 cents a pound even for medium-grade fleece. In recent years past, some flock owners ended up discarding or burning their fleeces because there was no market for them.

Stitzel’s experience shows as he makes short work of the yearlings. Unlike the large, fully wool-covered breeds Stitzel most often shears, Bluefaced Leicesters have only body wool. Not having to shear heads or legs makes the job go faster, as does the relatively small size of these young sheep — at 80 to 90 pounds, they are literally “lightweights” compared to the 200-plus-pound large breeds Stitzel more often contends with. Wenger has shown these lambs, so they are relatively docile to catch and offer no resistance as Stitzel flips them into a sitting position to shear. It takes less than five minutes each to complete shearing the three yearlings. This is compared to the 7 to 9 minutes or more it takes for Stitzel to shear breeds like Merinos and Rambouillets, which have wrinkled skin that require a shearer to proceed with caution while following their body contours.

As Stitzel gathered up his gear and loaded it back into his truck, he shared more tips with Wenger such as a suggestion to add a hay rack to the sheep pen to keep their wool more free from chaff.

Noting that there aren’t many competitors left in the sheep-shearing business these days, Stitzel made it clear: “I’m committed to the sheep industry. There aren’t many of us around.”

Watching him stretch like an athlete and strap on a back brace before he starts to shear as well as learning that he works out regularly at his local YMCA to keep his back and upper legs strong, show his commitment and demonstrate how he has outlasted many other shearers who have given up the trade due to bad backs.

Stitzel’s commitment is further evidenced by his ongoing support of 4-H livestock programs. He said that many owners of only one or two sheep opt to let him keep the wool he shears. He then saves up until wool pool time and generally has as much as 6,000 pounds to contribute. Stitzel uses half of the proceeds to buy replacement blades and the other tools of his trade. He uses the remaining funds to sponsor trophies for 4-H’ers at the various fairs he supports.

Given his skill, his expertise, his conditioning and his generosity, it’s easy to understand how Stitzel has compiled 40 years as a sheep shearer, with many more to come.

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