BUHL • With sweat dripping from his permanently tanned nose, Chase Cantrell leaned against the shearing shed.
“I did 266 sheep on my best day,” said Cantrell, 25, of Buhl, who has been shearing sheep for six years. Demonstrating for children on June 30, Cantrell was shearing only 22 sheep, but even so he ducked back into the trailer to finish the job after only a moment’s rest. He pulled a sheep from the chute and pinned it between his legs. In one motion his entire body moved with the clippers, uniformly removing the wool from the 1-year-old animal.
Sheep shearing may not be the most glamorous career, but it is has taken Cantrell around the world and has become his passion. When he started, Cantrell was only looking for a job to get him by while he figured out what he really wanted to do. Now, Cantrell said, “I can’t really see myself doing anything else.”
Shearing 20,000 sheep a season, Cantrell has traveled across the western U.S. from North Dakota to Utah, Missouri to Montana. He spent months at a time in Australia and New Zealand where the sheep industry is facing decline due to drought and other disasters.
“They’re killing their sheep because it’s too expensive to feed them,” Cantrell said. “It’s driving the up price of wool.”
Rising wool prices don’t benefit just the owners who can afford to keep their sheep, but others in the wool industry, too. Sheep owners are willing to pay higher prices for shearing if they’re making more profit from their wool. (Cantrell charges on average $5 per head, but that changes depending on how far he must drive, and the number and type of sheep.) Still, the market is becoming smaller and more competitive, Cantrell said.
A competitive environment doesn’t bother Cantrell.
He has sheared against the world’s best in 10 competitions, regularly finishing near the top. In the recent Bucking Horse Sale Contest, May 21 in Miles City, Mont., Cantrell came in third in the professional division just behind two shearers who will compete in the World Sheep Shearing Contest which takes place in New Zealand every two years.
While in Montana, Cantrell found a roustabout — or assistant — to help him with his startup company. Cantrell’s new partner, Amanda Hard, 19, of Seeley Lake, Mont., is also Cantrell’s future wife. The two plan on traveling together to shearing sites, wherever they may be. Cantrell has designed and built a mobile shearing trailer that he pulls behind his truck like a trailer.
On June 30, Cantrell was demonstrating his craft for a Boys and Girls Club program dubbed On the Farm Summer Day Camp, and donating his skills to local preacher Lynn Schaal, who planned to sell his sheep’s wool to help fund a mission trip to Bulgaria.
Cantrell showed the children how he clips the wool off the sheep’s belly, then the back. Once he has removed the wool from the sheep, it sticks together like a blanket and is called a fleece. Hard collected the wool and recorded which sheep it came from so that the quality could be tested before sale. The roustabout separates the belly wool from the other wool; she also has to be vigilant for impurities such as discolorations or organic matter.
“One little black patch in a white-faced sheep will contaminate the whole batch,” Hard said.
Although it is not a requirement, she also looks for weeds, such as foxtails or burrs, and twine that might get caught in the wool.
“The people that buy the wool will take that kind of thing out but don’t want to, so they won’t pay as much for a fleece with lots of that stuff in it,” Cantrell said. “It all trickles back to us.”
Once the wool is deemed acceptable, Hard presses the wool into compact bales with a wool press Cantrell bought used from another shearer and fixed up himself.
Hard passed out pieces of wool for the more than 15 children in attendance and explained her portion of the work while Cantrell finished shearing the small flock.
His speed? About 25 sheep an hour.