'learning to shear' Series

Should I shear my own alpacas? The pros and cons.

Deciding to take the plunge and shear your own animals can be a big leap for both time and finances. We're here to help you decide if its the right move.
Should I shear my own alpacas? It's a question that many small breeders ask themselves every year. The temptation to go it alone is completely understandable. The hassle of booking a shearer every year, particularly for a small breeder without the clout of the large farms, can be a real deal breaker. Added to that is the repeated cost, scheduling time off work, unreliable shearers, and shearing at a sub-optimal time of year, and the reasons to shear your own animals can be very compelling.
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Perhaps surprisingly, I am a big supporter of small breeders shearing their own herds. As someone who has raised alpacas for 15 years, the very reason I got into the shearing business was because of the self reliance and control that comes from shearing my own animals. I am, however, honest with people about the limitations and pitfalls that an unprepared small breeder can fall into. I have had many, many clients who have called to tell me that they decided to start shearing their own alpacas, only to get a call back a year or two later asking us to come shear for them again. It's a lot harder than it looks!

So, I'm going to lay out the pros and cons as clearly and impartially as I can, and let you the reader decide if you're up to the challenge.

First let's look at some of the benefits of shearing your own herd.

You decide when to shear. You decide what pattern to shear. You decide how fast to go. You decide to hold off on shearing that late-term pregnant female until after she births. The options for how and when to shear your animals is one of the biggest advantages to shearing your own animals.

Sorting your fiber
Perhaps you have very specific needs when it comes to fiber collection. You want to keep just the very best bits, and trash the rest. Or you want the blanket and the neck to come off together. Or you want all show blankets. Whatever it is, again, you have control.

This is one that is tricky, and may depend on exactly how many animals you have. But there is no denying that once the initial investment in equipment is laid out, there is the potential to save a lot of money. Shearing costs typically run from $25-30 per animal, and that can add up quick. If you have more than 20 alpacas, you could potentially be saving yourself several hundred dollars a year. As a farmer, the bottom line is important, so if you're in this to turn a profit, cost should be a serious consideration.

Self reliance
Let's admit it. No one gets into farming or ranching to depend on outside labor. The satisfaction that comes from getting the job done yourself is palpable. I get it. I'm the sort of person that rarely calls in an expert, (youtube is a treasure trove of great info). The agricultural life naturally attracts those who would prefer to figure it out on their own, and self shearing reflects that.
Shearing alpacas requires a lot of bending over! If you're young and fit, it may be the smart move to learn the skills, but if you're worried about your health, consider booking a professional.
Ok, now let's look at some of the disadvantages and pitfalls that come with the DIY approach. This is an honest and blunt assessment based on conversations with dozens of people who have chosen to shear their own animals. They may not all apply to you, but they should at least be considered before taking the plunge.

Shearing is hard work! Watching a professional glide over the animals body, cranking out 9-10 alpacas an hour, it's easy to get lulled into the "Doesn't look that bad" mentality. But let me assure you, it ain't easy. The average newbie takes anywhere from 15-40 minutes to shear an alpaca. Getting proper lessons and learning the right pattern can get you down toward the 15 minute camp, but between that, clean up, and managing your equipment, you'll be lucky to shear 3 animals an hour. 20+ minutes on the floor bent over in extreme concentration can exhaust even a young man. I've seen it many times. The beads of sweat start breaking out before the blanket is even finished. It's important to be clear-eyed in your assessment of your own physical abilities when considering this task. The number one reason people end up calling me back is because they didn't anticipate how hard it was going to be.

The learning curve
Again, watching a professional shear an alpaca makes it look very easy. But, you will struggle with learning the skills necessary to do a good job. Usually, if you have less than 20 animals, by the time you get finished with the last one you'll just be getting into your groove. Just in time to forget it completely and have to re-learn it all over again the following spring. If you're someone that has worked with their hands in other careers, and has a good grasp of equipment and physical work, you'll do much better. But consider your skill sets before attempting this endeavor.

Again, this can be a pro or a con depending on your situation. There is a pretty high cost involved in buying the equipment to shear your animals properly. A shearing machine, restraints, pads, blades, and other miscellaneous tools will add up to a minimum of $1,000. The shearing course is an additional few hundred dollars. On top of that, you'll need to get those blades re-sharpened. Sharpening services runs about $1-3 per blade (plus shipping). That's for the top and bottom separately. Given the fact that you'll be learning how to tension your equipment and all the time it takes to shear as a newbie, you can reliably predict a minimum of one set of blades per animal. So, if you have a lot of animals, that means either buying a lot of blades ($$$) or shearing a few at a time and waiting a week for them to be sharpened and returned. Those costs can add up quick.
The number one reason people end up calling me back is because they didn't anticipate how hard it was going to be.
This is actually another cost factor. Time is money. If you are going to spend six weekends in spring shearing your own animals, that is time that could be spent doing any other number of tasks. I've seen many people get completely burned out on shearing halfway through, and the last couple of weekends just becomes grueling. In comparison, if a professional shearing team can come in and do it in one day, that should be considered when looking at the cost to benefit ratio.

Shearing is dangerous. If you're not careful, you could hurt yourself or the animal. Serious shearing cuts require stitches or perhaps a veterinary intervention. It's not common, but it happens. If you are at all squeamish around blood, this should be a serious consideration. Sooner or later, you will cut an animal. Even professionals nick the occasional alpaca (the sloppier ones much more than occasionally). But not being familiar with the equipment, the right pattern, or body of the animal can lead to serious injuries.

Fiber quality
If you're planning on processing your fiber, this should be a serious consideration. One of the biggest issues with amateur shearers is the prevalence of second-cuts in their blankets. Second-cuts are little bits of fiber that get shorn after you make a second pass on the animal. They happen when the shearer isn't using the full width of the blade and doesn't have the machine properly positioned when making their blow. These undesirable little balls of fiber make the blanket difficult to process into wool, and lower the overall quality of your product by making the wool "pill" and feel scratchy. Avoiding second cuts is very difficult for a new shearer.

the product of a hard days work! There's nothing quite as satisfying as a job done well and seeing the fruits of your labor all laid out.
After reading of all that, and you still want to shear your own animals, then I applaud you! If you're looking for next steps, then check out this article on how to set yourself up for success.

Many hundreds of small breeders successfully shear their own animals each year, and you could join their ranks. But before you go down that road, it pays to give yourself an honest assessment to determine if shearing your own herd is right for you.

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