Farming is seasonal, and so is sheepskin production. Sheep also grow seasonally, from their muscle mass and overall weight to the way they grow a new fleece each year. It is important to be aware of these factors and plan your calendar accordingly for the best possible end-products.
This calendar represents the most common production schedule for North America. While your dates may vary, this is a good guideline for most folks who want to harvest meat and have nice quality sheepskins made.
November: The breeding season begins
March (before lambs due): Spring shearing
April: Lambs are born
September: Fall shearing for specialty breeds requiring two shearings per year. May be skipped for lambs that will go to slaughter by early November.
October: Lambs slaughtered; sheepskin cure process is started
November: Sheepskin cure is finished – ship to the tannery
- Most breeds of sheep naturally go into season in the fall, so fertility rates are generally higher and breeding is more likely to be successful.
- Shearing before lambs are due keeps the fleece cleaner, makes it easier to see when a ewe is close to term and makes it easier for newborn lambs to latch on to the teat.
- Slaughtering with 6-7 months of fleece growth means a nice full coat of wool on the sheepskin that is still relatively clean and free of debris after a season of being out on pasture.
- Slaughtering before December 1 is highly recommended to avoid molt, sheep’s seasonal shedding pattern that leads to felted sheepskins.
If you must slaughter in December – April, we highly recommend you shear the sheep 2-3 months beforehand. That way, you’ll remove the old fleece and allow the new one to grow in without the risk of felting. As an added bonus, short-wooled sheepskins have all the benefits of long-wooled ones, with lower maintenance. We have found these to be very popular with parents of young children: easy to keep clean, and perfect for nap time.
Variation 1: Larger lambs
Some shepherds would prefer to keep their lambs later into the season to yield a larger carcass size at slaughter and may be tempted to push their slaughter date into December, January, or later. However, from our experience, sheep only put on fat and not muscle tissue during the winter. If a larger carcass size is desired, we recommend keeping sheep until they are a full 18 months of age and have had a second summer to grow on grass.
In that case, you would shear the previous year’s lambs in March (along with the ewes that are due) and allow their coats to re-grow until September or October, harvesting them with 6-7 months of wool growth.
Variation 2: Spring festival markets
Some shepherds (particularly those in warmer climates) have the opportunity to market lamb for spring festivals including Passover, Easter, Ramanavami, and Eid al-Fitr.
Producing a lamb of the size and type that each holiday requires is a detail for each producer to consider. Generally, a 4-5 month-old lamb will fit the bill, which means sheep will be bread out of season and deliver in the fall. Since these lambs will have only a few months of wool growth, it is perfectly acceptable to slaughter them without shearing in March or early April.
Yes, sheep really DO molt!
Whatever you do, DO NOT be tempted to just skip a shearing cycle and hope that your sheepskins won’t felt. They will. We’ve washed and tanned hundreds of sheepskins at this point: dozens of different breeds from a range of climates. All sheep shed their fleeces, and any sheepskin with more than 10 months of growth will likely felt in the process, rendering the hide useless and bound for the trash heap.
We’ve heard from some customers that they haven’t had this issue at other tanneries, and we think that may be because it’s not as readily apparent with other methods of tanning. Some processes have the skins soaking in tubs with minimal agitation. However, that doesn’t mean the sheep haven’t molted, it just means the loose wool is less disturbed and therefore less apparent. Brushing out this type of sheepskin will reveal an abundance of loose fibers or even breaks in the fiber where it has released from the skin.