By Ross Markman
Gripping a Wyoming Special hand piece, the man with the gray, hooded sweatshirt and brown cap wipes the sweat from his brow as he surveys the dozens of customers waiting patiently in line.
Mike Schuldt has been in this position countless times. He steps back from his latest client and sends her on her way.
It was a windy Friday afternoon, and Schuldt was shearing sheep at the Mule Shoe Ranch in Chinook. By day's end, he would remove a year's worth of fleece from 140 sheep. The average sheep, he said, would produce 11 pounds of wool.
"The key to shearing is hold them tight and make them comfortable," Schuldt said, pointing at the Wyoming Special's rake attachment. "This has really wide teeth, which allows for a good amount of wool to remain on the sheep."
Schuldt, who learned how to shear sheep in 1988, visits Blaine County ranches on weekends. During the week, he's an Extension agent in Blaine County.
"This is how I got through college," he said.
Wearing a sling around his chest for balance, Schuldt is fast and precise but at the same time careful not to hurt the animal.
Nearby, his wife, Cheryl, stuffed most of the wool into a baler, a contraption that resembles a large trash compactor. The baler, known as the Dominator, packs the wool into 400-pound nylon bundles. Friday was the first day the $7,000 baler was used.
Last year the Mule Shoe Ranch packed five bales of wool. This year, it stuffed five and part of a sixth.
In a couple months, Mike and Tari Mord, owners of the ranch, will deliver the wool to Malta, where 32 growers along the Hi-Line pool their resources for eventual sales.
"It allows for a larger volume of wool to be sold with the pool," Mike Schuldt said.
The fleece market, however, is an unpredictable one, according to Tari Mord.
"Wool isn't worth anything right now. And this is pretty good quality wool," Mord said.
The Mords, though, can look forward to better sales this year, Schuldt said. Wool went for 45 cents a pound last year.
"I'm not sure how much it's going to come up, but the wool market is going up. Our market is driven by Australian supply and demand," Schuldt said.
Mord said the drought has hurt sheep ranchers just as it has other ag producers. For instance, sheep in warm winters produce less wool. Drought also makes it harder to keep them fed.
"It's tough. Crops are way down, and it's not much for pasture," she added.
Ranchers since 1994 and sheep owners since 1990, the Mords' 800-acre ranch sits along the Milk River and includes crops like alfalfa, and other animals like cows, donkeys and a canine.
Kermit the dog is a 90-pound Maremma and Sharplaninetz mix. A wild dog that can't be petted or played with by people, Kermit walks amongst the sheep.
"He kind of tells them where to follow," Mord said.
But that doesn't seem like a difficult task getting sheep to follow.
Back in the barn, dozens still waited in line, each facing the same way except one: the bait.
"Sheep are really stupid," Mord said. "They're followers."
One by one, the bait sheep, which faced toward the line, lured the animals to her and to Schuldt. Each is tagged to track their production; the tag's color indicates when they first reproduced.
Schuldt finished shearing another, and ran his fingers through the clumps of wool he just trimmed. Most of the wool goes to the baler. Some, from the sheeps' bellies, goes into a large wooden bin.
"All of this fleece is usable every bit of it," he said.
The wool from the bellies is grayer, shorter fleece. It tends to be shipped to the Middle East, where it's used to make blankets, Schuldt said.
The sheep, meanwhile, have a whole year to grow back their wool before Schuldt and his Wyoming Special return. The customers will likely be waiting patiently in line.