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Held family has sheared sheep all across Wisconsin for nearly 40 years. Colleen Kottke, Wisconsin State Farmer

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Bending over sheep held securely between their knees, Jay, Jerry and Jacob Held glide clippers expertly across the wool-clad bodies, the fleece falling away like a plush blanket.

Brothers Jay and Jerry, along with their older brother, Jeff, learned to shear their own sheep under the watchful eye of their father, Elmer Held of Oakfield.

"My dad sheared a bit, but when my brother, Jeff, and I started out, he was smart enough to retire," he said with a laugh.

By the time the brothers enrolled in the annual Beginning Sheep Shearing School, they had a fair amount of experience already under their belts. Organized by the Department of Animal Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Sheep Breeders Cooperative, the two-day venture covers hands-on shearing skills including sheep handling, shearing positions, wool handling, and equipment care and maintenance.

"By that time we were shearing a number of sheep and had a lot of practice," said Jay Held who lives in Princeton. "Some of the important things the school taught was positioning—keeping yourself in the right position and keeping the animal under control using just your feet and your knees. Ideally you should be able to take your hands off the sheep at all times."

Two important keys in learning to shear sheep correctly is having the right tools and starting with "user-friendly" breeds.

"When you're first learning to how to shear, the easiest breed to shear are the Suffolks as they typically don't have wool on their head or legs," Held said. "Wool breeds like Corriedale, Columbia or Merino have thinner skin, more wrinkles and a lot of wool on their bellies."

As the Held brothers became more proficient at their craft, Jay estimates they were shearing around 2000 sheep a year.

"If you become good at it, you can shear a sheep in about 3-5 minutes," he said. "Luckily all the bending over has never bothered my back."

Today, Jay and his son, Jacob, shear about 800 to 1000 sheep a year. 

"We don't do this full time, it's just something that we do on weekends," Held said. "There's a lot of people in the state that do this as a job, but we're not going to be competing with them, that's for sure."

Jay currently works full-time at Brakebush Brothers Inc. in Westfield as a third shift manager, while Jacob works as a quality assurance engineer at Alliant Laundry Systems in Ripon. Jerry Held works for Wisconsin Public Service out of Appleton.

Held says he shears his own sheep along with a lot of small flocks throughout the year, as does his son and brother, Jerry.

"The only time the three of us get together to shear sheep is at my parent's, a flock down in Franklin and the Kottke family up in Fond du Lac, which is our largest flock," said Held. "We've been shearing around the state for nearly 40 years."

The greatest demand for their services falls into February and March before lambing time.

"We sheared over 100 sheep today at the Kottke farm in December because they have enough animals where the barn is going to stay a lot warmer," Held pointed out. "If you kept the wool on them in a confined space like this, they would get the condensation on their backs which would make it very difficult to keep the barn dry."

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Inside the barn at Cottonwood Creek Farms owned by the Kottke family, three generations are hard at work on Shearing Day, making sure the sheep flow in and out of the three shearing stations manned by the Held brothers.

In recent years, the family has been paring down the number of sheep in their commercial meat breed flock which consists of Hampshire/Suffolk crossbreeds and Southdowns. At one time the Helds were shearing nearly 200 head of sheep for them. This month it was just over 100.

"We like to let our yearlings go for a year so they have a nice fleece. We will shear before the breeding season to see which ones are suitable to be kept back," said David Kottke. "That way we have a better idea which ones are genetically better."

Shearing the sheep not only helps the lambs to find milk from their mothers with ease, but it keeps the ewes healthy throughout the winter.

"Those heavy wool coats retain moisture, and by shearing them it helps the sheep to avoid pneumonia and rids them of any parasites that might be under that fleece," Kottke added.

Shearing Day is also a tradition on the Kottke farm that was much enjoyed by family patriarch Jim Kottke who relished his long-time role of head shepherd before his death in 2013. Grandson Brayden Kottke and his father, Steven, were among family members helping out.

"When I was a kid, my job was helping to catch the sheep," said Brayden. "The best part was being here with grandpa and seeing his passion for the sheep. My wife and I are now raising goats and we probably wouldn't be doing that if grandpa never had sheep."

As soon as the fleece is off the sheep, it's gathered by one of the great grandchildren and taken outdoors to be dropped down inside the 6-8-foot tall burlap wool bags that hold between 125-150 lbs of fleece.

Held estimates the fleece of a suffolk sheep weighs between 7-8 lbs., while a wool breed sheep produces a fleece weighing between 10-15 lbs. The fleece of a large ram can weigh in at around 25 lbs.

After the large bags are filled, the ends are sewn shut with twine and taken by the Helds to be stored until July or August until it is shipped out of state.

"We send about 4,000 lbs. of fleece to Gruenwald Fur and Wool down in Illinois," Held said.

Coarser farm flock wool is typically sold to carpet mills for the batting behind carpeting, while the better grade wools may be made into the carpeting itself.

Held says the market for farm flock wool has been depressed for a number of years while the market for finer wool made from wool breed sheep are still finding good prices.

"Some years we might break even on what we get paid for the wool and the cost of shearing the sheep," said David Kottke with a laugh. "We just enjoy Shearing Day because it's a tradition for our family. You get a chance to get together to talk about how the year went and look ahead to the future."

Nowadays Held says that he stays closer to home and takes on very few new customers.

"I've missed a lot of family functions over the years and my son can attest to that," Held said. "However, over the years we've had a lot of opportunities to meet a lot of interesting people. It's been a good experience for our family."

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