With the tobacco safely hung and curing in the barns, October was a month for projects, from spreading manure to filling gate areas with rock to spreading lime to shearing sheep. There was even time for a family event — a wedding.
Shearing sheep is an art form and John Cooper has it down to a science, generally following the same pattern with each one and taking only about five minutes per animal.
At the Quarles family farm the day he worked in one of the sheep barns, Cooper had 67 ewes and one ram to shear. He charges $5 per head.
Bruce Quarles would direct a sheep — with strong persuasion — toward Cooper, who would pick it up and place the sheep’s back against his legs. He would then grasp the tip of the sheep’s nose or left leg — because he is right-handed — to gain control.
“You try to go by the same pattern, get in a rhythm,” Cooper said. “You trim from back to front and try to use long strokes.”
Cooper quickly moves the shears up the inside of the legs, across the belly and up the outside of the leg and hip. He then does the chest before twisting the sheep to get to the other side. A quick swipe across the top of the head finishes the trim job.
A few of the ewes acted up, but more were very still while getting their haircuts.
“They don’t breathe much (while being sheared),” Cooper said.
A few tiny, red nicks are visible on some of the sheep after shearing, but Quarles said that is common and they would disappear quickly.
“With so much lanolin in their skin,” he said, “you won’t see those nicks in a day or two.”
Lanolin is often called “wool wax” or “wool grease.” Its waterproofing qualities help sheep shed water from their coats.
When Cooper would finish, the sheep would scamper off and leave behind six to seven pounds of wool. Quarles would scoop up the wool and stuff it in a large, heavy plastic bag.
The wool would be sold to Mid-States Wool Growers Cooperative Association, which has a pickup point in Owenton. It is barely worth a farmer’s time; they are paid only four to five cents a pound for the wool.
Learned while at UK
Cooper learned how to shear sheep while majoring in Ag Economics at the University of Kentucky. He owns a 240-acre family farm near Monticello where he grows tobacco, corn and soybeans … and has about 50 sheep.
He was introduced to farming at an early age. His late father, who was also named John, worked for a few years at a stockyard before becoming a farm loan officer.
Today Cooper shears sheep at about 20 farms, from northern Georgia to Indiana to Illinois.
He lamented how fewer farmers seem to raise sheep each year. Numbers show the U.S. sheep population has dropped sharply since it reached a high of 56 million in 1945. It is estimated at about 7 million today.
The sheep industry accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. livestock receipts.
Cooper was using a Sunbeam clipper made specifically for shearing goats and sheep. It was attached to a Nexus shearing machine, which provides the power source. The Nexus is made by Lister Shearing Equipment in Gloucestershire, England, a company that began in 1909 and today ships shearing equipment to customers in 60 countries.
After every few sheep, Cooper would drip a few drops of 30-weight motor oil on the clippers to keep them lubricated.
Out of the mud
One day early in the month, Quarles and his two sons, Steven and Travis, were busy hauling, loading and leveling rock on several gateways and in an area they regularly drive over that was becoming muddy following rains.
They were participating in the Franklin County Conservation District’s Rock Gateway/Alleyway Program.
To any farmer that applies and is approved, the Soil Conservation program provides 40-feet of filter fabric and up to 20 tons of rock at no cost. The stakes to secure the fabric are also provided.
Also at no cost is Harrod Concrete and Stone’s delivery of the dense grade rock.
The Quarleses own an old dump truck and high lift which, like those on many farms in the area, were once new vehicles owned by the state.
This day, Bruce was driving the dump truck and Travis was driving the high lift. Two dump truck loads were used to fill the mud hole while the remainder did nicely to smooth out two gateways.
Several pieces of other equipment were near where the rock had been dumped, leading Steven to display his sense of humor, a personality quality shared by the family members.
“That piece of equipment there, that’s the only piece of equipment a manufacturer will not stand behind,” he said, pointing to a manure spreader.
“Is that so,” a willing reporter said.
“Well, have you ever stood behind a manure spreader,” he said, laughing.
The big news in equipment at the farm was a new Discbine disc mower Bruce Quarles had just purchased from Bluegrass Farm and Lawn in Shelbyville.
The New Holland Mowmax H7220 Discbine, which mows a width of 9 feet, 2 inches, “has cutter blades that spin so you can mow much faster,” Steven Quarles said.
The previous week, the dump truck had been used to haul manure from the two sheep barns to various locations on properties the Quarleses own.
Eight truckloads of manure had been spread on the garden Travis and his family raise while seven were spread at Steven’s farm and another three at another property they farm.
The manure is allowed to accumulate during the entire season the sheep are kept inside.
“The reason you don’t take it out — you put straw on top of it — is because it makes its own heat,” Travis said. “It ferments and makes its own heat.”
In addition to spreading manure, 130 tons of lime had been spread over 65 acres at various locations, mostly “where you have put ammonium nitrate,” Bruce said.
The lime is purchased through a Soil Conservation program that covers up to $750 of the cost. It is purchased from Hanson Aggregates in Tyrone, near Lawrenceburg. Hanson is a division of the global company Heidelberg Cement Group.
Something’s always broken
There is a reason Steven and Travis Quarles were so excited by the purchase of a new piece of equipment. Their family farms have an enormous amount of equipment and rarely does a week go by that some mechanical work is not required.
Out of necessity, most farmers have to also be mechanics, but Steven and Travis Quarles actually have degrees in the field and Travis also works on vehicles every day in his capacity as a mechanic with the Franklin County Road Department.
Both Steven and Travis have associate degrees from Central Kentucky Technical College in Lexington.
Travis has been with the county 11 years and Steven has worked for the Frankfort Plant Board for eight years. He is a water district operator, where he works installing and fixing water lines.
Travis Quarles has a shop at his house on Sullivan Lane where equipment is often worked on.
During September, he was putting a new engine in a 1988 International truck he had purchased a few years ago. It was a flat bed when he purchased it, but he installed sides, which he had to go to Missouri to get. This way he can use the truck to haul corn.
To say he has done some work on the truck would be an understatement. But the fact is Travis enjoys having tools in his hands and grease under his fingernails.
He rattles off just a few of the things he has done to the truck: brakes, tires, rear end, u-joints, clutch.
It was time to put a new engine in the truck, which has more than 500,000 miles on it, because last year “it lost a lot of power and was using oil,” Travis said.
It took him about six hours to tear the old engine out, and when visited by a reporter he was planning to spend several days cleaning parts with mineral spirits before putting the engine back together.
Davis Machine Shop in Paris was building the new head gasket, and the other parts were ordered through Republic Diesel in Lexington.
Travis expected it would take about eight hours, spread over several nights, to install the new engine.