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The Production Of Wool

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The United States produces annually something over 300,000,000 pounds of wool as it comes from the sheep's back. The people each year use, on an average, between five and six pounds for every man, woman, and child; hence there must be imported almost as much as we produce at home. The production within the United States in 1910 was 321,400,000 pounds, while the importations amounted to 252,000,000 pounds. The sources of our raw wool will prove more significant in the future, for according to the census of 1910, there were then about 14 per cent fewer sheep in this country than there were in 1900, ten years before. During these ten years the number of sheep fell off in more than three-fourths of the states in the Union. In some states the drop in numbers was as much as half. Evidently if we allow this decrease in production to continue, we shall have to rely more and more upon foreign countries for our supply.

Why wool production is falling off in the United States. It is well to know something about the conditions of sheep and wool production in this country so that this tendency to discontinue sheep raising may be traced intelligently. Possibly some of the causes for this tendency may be removed or at least modified. It may be that some of them will become inoperative in the future. In any case the student should intelligently follow this movement during the coming years.

Not profitable.-The fundamental reason for the lessening of sheep in America is that the farmers find that under the present methods of farming they can make more money producing something else. The average market value of a sheep in this country in 1910 was about $4.40. The cost of keeping sheep averages about $4.00 per head per year, counting all expenses, value of investment, etc. The principal products are wool and lambs. The average weight of the fleece of an American sheep is less than seven pounds. At an average sales price of twenty-five cents a pound, the wool brings about $1.75. Flocks that double in number in a year are considered very good. If this increase in lambs were sold at the average value of lambs as given in the census for 1910, then there would be a product of about $2.30 for each lamb. Each sheep in the flock could then be credited with a fleece at $1.75 and a lamb at $2.30, or a total of $4.05. This leaves a net profit of five cents a sheep-too narrow a margin in view of the facts that only the better grades of wool sell for twenty-five cents a pound, that the price fluctuates considerably, and that the cost of keeping sheep varies from year to year. It is easy to see why many farmers lose money on sheep raising. The margin of profit is never very wide. Careful accounts of nine typical Minnesota flocks kept by the Minnesota Agricultural College showed for each sheep an average cost of $4.13 and an average income of $4.38.

Western ranges raise sheep at considerably less cost, but the product on each sheep is generally less also. The figures that have been given should be considered only as averages. Few actual cases will be found exactly the same as these. The point emphasized is the narrow profit margin in sheep production in this country. Many who have scientifically studied sheep raising say that it is possible to raise sheep in this country at a satisfactory profit. The fact is that while certain farmers are able to raise sheep profitably, their methods and their knowledge of the business are not general. It is one of the chief purposes of agricultural colleges the country over to teach better methods of production; some of these colleges have made special study of this particular subject of sheep and wool production.

Depredations of dogs.-Not only the financial consideration prevents farmers from raising sheep. Strange as it may seem, sheep raising has fallen off considerably in several portions of this country because of the depredations of dogs. Vermont is an example, according to some who have grown sheep there. The same is true of Massachusetts, New York, and even Wisconsin. In Kansas, where there are more dogs than sheep, the sheep owners declare that the owners of dogs cannot be made to believe that their dogs are the culprits; hence trouble arises. Where dog owners outnumber the raisers of sheep, the latter frequently stop raising sheep. It should be added that much of the sheep destruction by dogs is due to stray curs, an evil that a good licensing system would remedy.

Competition of the dairy industry.-Another factor checking the production of sheep is the growth of the dairy industry. In southern Wisconsin, formerly a great sheep section, dairy cattle have been substituted to the full limit of pasturage and feed. The Wisconsin College of Agriculture maintains that this is a mistake. They assert that if the farmer would raise fewer cows and would add small flocks of sheep, the net profits would be as great and the farm kept in better condition.

High cost of fencing.-Another drawback to sheep rais ing in the northern part of Wisconsin is the high first expense for fencing. Cattle can be kept within a pasture by the use of only three barbed wires placed at the proper height; whereas sheep require five wires, or better still, woven wire fencing. The immediate expense of such fencing deters new farmers from going into sheep raising. The narrow margin of profit, the dangers of sheep diseases, and the lack of knowledge about sheep are some of the other reasons why sheep raising is on the decline in the Middle West.

Methods of wool production in this country.-The methods of wool production differ widely in the different parts of the country. For example, in the West, sheep raising is conducted as a distinct occupation on large ranches, huge flocks of sheep being raised on a single ranch containing its thousands of acres. In the eastern part of the country the industry of sheep raising is carried an rather incidentally on grain or dairy farms. In Wisconsin the average number of sheep on the farms that raise sheep at all is less than twenty. This may be taken as typical of sheep production in all parts of the country except in the sheep-ranching area. The sheep ranches require special labor, sheep herders, camp tenders, and shearers, an average of one man for every 1,500 head of sheep, and extra help during lambing and shearing times. In the dairy and grain-farming states, the sheep are usually given only a part of the time of the farmer, allowed to run in the pastures with the cattle, and stabled just as the cattle are in the winter time. In the West, the sheep ranch land is used for nothing else. In fact close grazing unfits the land for other livestock pasturage for several seasons. Sheep ranching has frequently paid well in the past, but is, nevertheless, a hazardous and lonesome occupation. The sheep herder stays out for long periods of time with his flocks, seeing no human being save the camp tender. Few men can stand the strain without undue mental suffering. Most of the herders are Mexicans and Indians, who seem less susceptible to this danger.

Possibilities of loss an sheep ranches.-There is always possibility of great loss of sheep from storms during the winter. During blizzards whole flocks of many thousands of sheep may be killed. Poisonous plants kill some sheep every year. Coyotes and wildcats, especially the former, constantly follow the ranch flocks, stealing in and killing sheep whenever the herder with his rifle is off his guard. In times of excessive drought, both the feed and water may disappear; whereupon the sheep must be driven long distances to new pastures and to water. Many sheep are likely to fall dead by the wayside on these journeys.

There is usually considerable loss of both ewes and young lambs at lambing time. For weeks after the lambs are born, there is constant likelihood of the lambs being separated from the mothers, and starving to death. At least 10 per cent of the lambs die thus on the sheep ranches. Large numbers of sheep are often shipped eastward and divided up among eastern farmers for the purpose of fattening them for market, with probable losses at every move. Sheep ranching has almost as many chances as gambling. During the last few years, therefore, there has been a steady decrease in the number and size of these ranches. Irrigation and dry farming have crept in. The sheep rancher has been compelled either to retreat to more arid regions, or to sell out his flocks, very frequently the latter. We may not look forward to any increase in sheep ranching in this country. Sheep and wool production will grow only with the spread of diversified farming, and in the humid regions.

Shearing.-Shearing is now usually done in May. June shearing, formerly common, is now thought less practicable, the sheep doing better and the wool product being finer from the earlier shearing. The average fleece in Wisconsin weighs from seven to eight and one-half pounds, a fair average for the varieties raised, mainly Shropshires and Oxfords.

The shearing is done either by hand shears or by machine clippers. Since the introduction of the machine wool clippers, the sheep with folds in their skin have not been popular. The older merinos had deep folds, and sheep raisers everywhere tried to breed so as to make them still deeper; they reasoned that the deeper the folds the greater the skin surface, and the greater the skin surface, the greater the amount of wool on each sheep. Now farmers everywhere desire the sheep with smooth skin, preferring rather to increase the size of the body by crossbreeding the merinos and other fine wool sheep with the large, bony, long-wool types.

The fleece.-If the shearing is done well, the wool from the sheep holds together in one large sheet. This sheet, called the fleece, is rolled up and tied, with the dirty outer side of the wool turned in. Sometimes two fleeces are tied together in the same bundle. The fleeces are either stored by the farmers in the hope that prices may rise, or else immediately hauled by wagon loads to market.

Wool washing.-In some localities the wool is washed before being hauled to market, frequently while on the sheep's back, by giving the sheep a bath in a tank, but this practice seems to be on the decrease. The improved washing machinery found in wool manufactories has made it unprofitable for the farmer to wash wool by hand in his ordinary tubs or tanks. The result from wool washing on the farm is so uneven that there can be no assurance of proper remuneration for the work.



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