Clipping the goats–an end to the “diamond” era?

 

As the fog lifts and the sun rises over the horizon, most people drink their coffee and prepare for the morning commute. However, in a small south central Texas town, working hours started before the roosters woke from their roost.

Cold morning temperatures and rainy skies greet the crew and the rancher as they prepare for their long day of shearing the angora goats.  Today, the crew will be responsible for shearing 300 head. This would be a small task for the crew twenty years ago, but with changing times 300 animals for the day is a large number.

A half century before a small south central Texas town claimed the Angora goat as king.  Rocksprings named the school mascot Angora.  Tens of thousands of angora goats roamed the countryside providing brush control and income for the local ranchers. 

Shearing crews numbering ten or twelve individuals traveled a two hundred and fifty mile radius around Rocksprings twice a year shearing the rancher’s goats. 

A shearing crew consists of the shearers and one or two “catchers”.  The shearer’s responsibility includes catching the animal and using clippers removing the mohair from the animal. 

As the shearer completes his task the “catcher” retrieves the mohair and puts it inside a “wool” sack—a large burlap bag capable of holding hundreds of pounds of hair.  The catcher would also hand the shearer a washer so he could keep track of the number of animals shorn during the day.

At the end of the day the shearer turns in his washers to the crew chief to determine the person’s pay.

In the early fifties a member of the shearing crew earned twenty-five cents per animal.  Today, a shearer receives up to $3.50 a head.  The cost of mohair has also increased from the lows of the early 90’s to today’s highs of $13 a pound.

The low price of mohair in the 90s only added to the new pressures facing the Texas ranchers.  Texas led the nation and the world in mohair production in the later part of the 20th century.  However, now the large herds are a distant past and the shearing crews have shrunk to a small number.  People must schedule their shearings months in advance and if the rancher should miss their day it could take months for them to secure a new date. 

Small numbers of shearing crews are not the only obstacles facing the Texas rancher.  Many of those who own large herds rely on lease property for grazing.  Younger generations, who inherited the property choose to sell leaving the ranchers without needed acreage for the herds.

Mother Nature added to the ranchers difficulty as drought baked the region placing additional stress upon the terrain.  Grain and hay prices skyrocketed forcing many in the agriculture business to sell their herds.

Coyotes and wild hogs prey on the young goats many times killing most of the young leaving the rancher with little or no hope of recovering the cost production for the year.  The rancher loses the income from animals that could be marketed for sale and many times the young goats are shorn before they are sent to market.

In the early 90s an new industry appeared in rural Texas—the hunting ranch.  Many land owners receive tax breaks for agricultural use of land.  This tax break would soon be extended to those who manage wildlife for hunting.  Land owners soon realize larger sums of money from those traveling from urban areas to the “wilderness” to bag  big game animals.  The wildlife require less care and depending on the season the land owner only has to worry about people on the property for a couple of months versus a year round operation. 

Ranchers soon realize they didn’t have to round up their stock, vaccinate their stock, feed their stock on cold wet mornings, and don’t have to nurse an animal back to health and still earn more in one year than sometimes they could in five years of raising livestock.  So available grazing land becomes lost to larger hunting operations.

One Rocksprings rancher in the early 90s raised over 10,000 head of goats, now his herd is a quarter of the size. 

This brisk morning he and the shearing crew start their work day as the sun breaks through the darkness.  The four guys, soon to be joined by another, walk into the barn and set up their equipment.

Standing in the pens-300 head of angora goats waiting for their first shearing of the year.  In recent times, PETA has targeted the sheep and goat industry.  According to their undercover investigations they claim goats raised for mohair are subject to cruel treatment and dangerous conditions by the shearers.

The shearers and the ranchers understand the value of each of the animals waiting in the pens.  Shearers understand they cannot cause large cuts on the animals because if the mohair is stained the price for the hair is drastically reduced.  Any shearer that does not care for the animals does not last long in the business even if the numbers continue to dwindle.

Ranchers utilize both sexes of the angora goat, which is different than other farm animal species.  Most male animals are normally sold at market for inclusion into the meat industry.  However, altered male angora goats are raised to produce mohair.  The males grow much larger than the female and since they are altered the breeding season does not affect their hair production.

To add to the drastically low numbers of shearers available and to guarantee quality in the workforce the Texas Extension Agent in Rocksprings has started offering classes and training for new shearers in the industry.

Outside the pens the sheared goats are provided sheds to protect them from the elements and provide warmth.  Any loss of animal means the rancher will have less money to operate, care for his animals, and care for their family.

Currently yearling kid goats are worth over $140 a piece.  An angora goat can produce 10 pounds of hair valued at $13 per pound.  Each animal means the survival of the rancher.  During lean years—draught, high feed costs, overactive predators—ranchers and their families sacrifice their own needs to provide and care for their herd.

The shearers prepare for the start.  The rancher moves a small group of goats into the shearing barn.  The shearers work quickly as they select their animal and start the process.  On average the process will take between two and three minutes depending on the size of the animal.  As one shearer finishes the catcher quickly scoops the clipped mohair into his basket and then into the sack.

In past years members of the shearing crew would use a 20 tooth comb allowing the clipper to cut the mohair close to the skin.  Now crew members use a 13 tooth comb leaving a small covering on the animal to provide warmth and cover for the elements.

One crew member stands in the sack and packs the mohair tightly down to ensure the bag is filled.  Once the bag is filled the crew member takes it down from the stand and using a long metal needle ties and stiches the bag shut. 

Later after the shearing is complete the mohair will be transported to one of only 8 warehouses left in Texas.  There the mohair will be sorted, graded, and prepared for the buyers who travel from across  the world to the warehouse.

Textile and fabric manufactures purchase Mohair for its durability.  Many in the industry refer to mohair as the “diamond fiber.”  It is the strongest natural fiber durable, warm, extremely lightweight, and lustrous with a soft hand. It is the most resilient natural textile fiber, and is often combined with other fibers in the production of apparel and home fashion items.

Kid hair, hair from the first shearing of a young angora goat, possesses the unique feature of natural wicking properties that takes perspiration away from the skin, preventing bacterial build up and odor.

Uses for Mohair include gloves, socks, under garments, and jackets to name just a few.  Clothing items made from mohair and properly cared for can last decades. The mohair holds fabric dye well and because of its luster and sheen it is used in many uxorious fashion designs.

Although it is the strongest natural fiber available and the durability of the fiber offers both producers and consumers a lasting product, PETA’s protests have forced some fashion houses to boycott or discontinue the use of mohair.    This trend has created added pressure on the angora goat rancher.  Most of the footage used in the PETA protest was obtained from 12 angora goat farms in South Africa. 

As noon approaches the shearers have almost finished shearing half of the herd.  The crew leader is 53 years old and the youngest member of the crew.  The average age of shearing crew now is over 65.  The men have been working for over two hours either on their knees or bent a the waist.  Shearing is not an easy task.  The only breaks offered in the action is when the rancher has to move animals from the larger pen into the shearing barn.  This allows the shearer the opportunity to sharpen the cutters and combs, make adjustments to the clipper or take a quick “smoke break” and then action starts again.

The rancher moves goats through the pens, counting each head.  The shearing drops move, clippers move and the process continues.  Soon the crew will finish today’s task and tomorrow in the early morning hours will arrive at the next ranch to shear another herd. This will be the routine for the next three months of spring.  Then process will grind to a halt until August when it will be time for the second shearing of the goats.  Planning the shearing as this time allows the animal to have less hair in the hot summer months of Texas but have more than adequate hair for the cold days of a Texas winter.

The rancher stands in the door of the barn—watching, counting, contemplating.  The future for the rancher has become uncertain in modern times.  Some of the obstacles remain the same, Mother Nature, predators, volatile markets; while new challenges arise–aging ranchers, loss of the family business, and changing market trends.

“We are slowly dying off. I won’t do this until I am 95. I will retire,” says the rancher.  “We will continue to travel the countryside shearing goats as long as there are crazy people like this willing to raise a herd,” says the shearing crew leader. 

Both men seem to be locked into a struggle, a battle of changing times, and the desire to hold onto a piece of the historical fabric of a small south central Texas town.  Staring back at both men are the angora goats waiting to be sheared or waiting for their opportunity to travel to the feeders and the sheds.

As the sun sets, one ponders if it is the final glow of an industry.

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