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Sheep: An Erickson family affair

By Staff | Feb 20, 2009

Melissa Grandon, of Waukee, gathers wool being sheared by Paul Hoffman, right. Grandon is the granddaughter of Gary Erickson and has been helping with the annual event for over 20 years on the family farm west of Humboldt.

HUMBOLDT – Raising sheep is a skill that seems to run in the family blood for Gary Erickson, of Humboldt.

He grew up on a farm where his father raised nearly 10,000 sheep. His daughter and granddaughter and her family come back each January or February to help with the shearing of Erickson’s sheep. He’s even visited a sheep farm and a shearing museum while on vacation in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s always been a family thing,” Erickson said.

“I’ve been helping for at least 20 years,” said Erickson’s granddaughter, Melissa Grandon, of Waukee.

The tradition continued Saturday as the family gathered on their farm just west of Humboldt for the annual sheep shearing with family friend Paul Hoffman, of Battle Creek.

Paul Hoffman, of Battle Creek, works on one of 32 sheep sheared Saturday morning on the Gary Erickson farm west of Humboldt. The annual shearing is a family event for the Erickson's, bringing children and grandchildren home to participate.

“We try to get them done as close to the first of the year as possible,” said Erickson.

Contrary to common assumptions, Hoffman said that mid to late winter is about the best time to shear sheep of their thick, woolly winter coats.

“The wool holds in moisture,” said Hoffman. “That can cause pneumonia among the sheep and create a cold, wet environment in the barn. They’re warmer and dryer when shorn because their 102 degree body temperature generates heat.”

Erickson added that feeding the sheep a little excess grain also keeps them warmer in the winter once they have been shorn.

“We’ll give them a little more corn on colder days,” he said.

After her haircut, the ewe is returned to her pen and two lambs.

Although not as large of an industry as swine or cattle production, the sheep industry provides both meat and wool products, as well as lanolin, a natural oil in the wool that is used in the production of a number of lotions.

“Sheep skin has a naturally oily feel to it,” said Hoffman. “It’s the lanolin, which also protects their skin from any nicks they might get in the shearing process.

Once removed, the wool from Erickson’s sheep is bagged and sent to a warehouse in Hutchinson, Kan., where it is graded on thickness and fiber quality to determine its use.

“Wool has a lot of competition with cottons and synthetics,” said Erickson. “It’s not as widely used, but it lasts longer.”

Erickson said wool is a product that has been highly used with the military for many years.

“They’ve been using wool for the soldiers T-shirts because it retains moisture and keeps them cooler in the desert,” he said. “It’s safer in war zones because it doesn’t burn or melt as easily as cotton and polyesters do. Sheep producers were even draft-exempt during World War II because the need for wool uniforms was high.”

Hoffman said there are fewer sheep being produced today.

“There are only about 6 million sheep in production around the United States today, compared to closer to 55 million just over 50 years ago,” he said.

“We’re definitely in a small industry,” said Erickson. “But sheep producers have helped a lot of other industries and the military over the years.”

Contact Emilie Nelson at 573-2141 or enelson@messengernews.net.

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