Jim Schaefer, owner of Schaefer’s Sheep Shearing, shears a natural-colored ewe on Schmidt Brothers farm. Jim has been shearing and raising sheep for much of his life. He attended shearing school as a teenager and began competing in shearing contests in his 20s.
Matt Schmidt herds the next age group of sheep through the barn of his family’s Centralia, Mo., farm on shearing day in mid-May.
A freshly shorn natural-colored ewe stands in the pasture as rain begins to fall. The color variation is one of the reasons Matt decided to raise this breed. “When we have lambs, we never know what we’re going to get,” Matt said. “They could be all black or all white or spotted.”
Matt and his wife, Demi, are raising their sons, Gage, 5, and Gunner, 3, to help care for their sheep, including the flock of Katahdins behind them. Matt began raising Katahdin, a hair sheep breed, because they are smaller and easier to manage. In addition to raising sheep and other livestock, Matt works with his uncle to farm about 850 acres of row crops around Centralia, Laddonia and St. Charles, Mo., where the Schmidt family originally hails from. They moved to Centralia when Matt was 12, escaping the urban encroachment of St. Louis to expand their farm.
Because of the Midwest climate, most sheep in Missouri are raised for meat rather than wool. The wools here are typically medium to coarse in texture, Jim said, and are used to make items such as socks and blankets.
Gage lifts the head of a ewe that won ReserveGrand Champion Fall Lamb at the 2019 Missouri State Fair.
These ewes are destined for the state fair this year.Matt will begin working with them over the summer.
To prepare sheep for showing, Matt gives them a meticulous cut and fluff and then applies a light oil to help them shine.
Matt said raising sheep taught him a lot about hard work and responsibility, but it was also fun. He hopes his kids get to experience that. “It takes a lot of work to raise sheep,” Matt said. “I’m up before dawn and in after dark, but I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.”
Shearing day starts with cinnamon rolls and a side of eggs on Schmidt Brothers Farm in Centralia, Mo.
Rosel Schmidt brings a plateful of breakfast out to the barn, where her oldest son, Matt, is working with long-time shearer and family friend, Jim Schaefer. Heavy black clouds from a late-spring storm can be seen on the horizon, but that doesn’t slow them down. In fact, the farm is awash with commotion. Rosel has made enough food to feed the local wrestling team, literally.
Her husband, Bryan, and middle son, Mike, are both wrestling coaches in Centralia, while son, Marc, coaches in nearby Moberly. His twin brother, Mitch, also teaches ag education at North Shelby High School in Shelbyville, Mo. Today, high school wrestlers are flocking to one end of the farm readying for an event, while Matt is herding sheep in the opposite direction through a series of gates to Jim, owner of Schaefer’s Sheep Shearing in Callao, Mo.
“These are our old ewes,” said Matt. “They get sheared twice a year—once in the spring, then again in the fall.”
Matt and his three brothers grew up showing sheep, a passion passed down from their mother.
“The story goes, my grandparents were looking for something for my mom to take to the fair,” Matt said. “They thought cattle were too big for her, and showing pigs is very specific and detailed. Sheep just fit.”
As time went on, the family kept that tradition. Together, the Schmidts now have roughly 240 sheep, split between two locations. Right now, Matt mainly raises natural-colored sheep, Katahdin hair sheep, and some crossbreds, but over the last 20-plus years, the farm has been home to a variety of breeds.
“I think I started with about eight Southdown ewes when I was 7 or 8 years old,” Matt said. “They’re a small breed. They don’t get any taller than about the thigh. But my cousins had Hampshires and Dorsets, and my brother had Tunis.”
Different sheep get different shearing treatments, he explained. When preparing for a show, the lambs and yearlings get a meticulous cut and fluff, but the ewes just get a quick shear and are on their way back to the green grass of the pasture.
It’s something Matt can do, but shearing isn’t his specialty. That’s where Jim comes in. He’s quick, and he’s skilled. Experience has made him so. He started when he was 14 years old after attending a shearing school with his father.
“We would shear our own sheep and some for our neighbors, but I didn’t really do it much until I got out of college,” said Jim, a graduate of University of Missouri in Columbia.
For about 10 years during his mid-20s and early-30s, Jim sharpened his skills by competing in shearing contests, a sport in which entrants see how fast they can remove the wool. On average, he could shear a sheep in about 2 minutes. But as his sons began getting older and showing sheep themselves, Jim steered his efforts in that direction.
He currently maintains a flock of Île-de-France sheep, a breed native to the region near Paris and relatively uncommon in the United States.
When Jim is done shearing the Schmidts’ flock, he will haul the wool to his own farm and bale it with a hydraulic wool press. From there, it’s shipped west to Roswell Wool in Roswell, N.M., where it’s then sampled for quality and auctioned. On the market, wool can vary from 15 cents a pound to $4 a pound.
“Most of our Midwest wools are medium to coarse in texture,” Jim said. “They aren’t fine wools like you would see in nice suits or sweaters. Our wools may be used for things like socks or blankets. Fine-wool sheep don’t handle a lot of moisture like we have in Missouri.”
On the Schmidt farm, the crossbred sheep are mostly raised for meat, which the family butchers themselves, while the other breeds may be destined for the show ring. Though Matt started with smaller Southdown sheep, he bought his first natural-colored ewe as soon as he was able to raise the money in his early teens. Last year, he took home the Reserve Grand Champion Fall Ewe Lamb title at the Missouri State Fair in the open show with the breed.
“The natural-colored sheep are big, but that was the breed I decided I wanted,” Matt said. “Now, we’re probably one of 10 breeders in the U.S. of this sheep. There aren’t that many of us out there.”
Perhaps the greatest winning weekend for the Schmidt family happened in 2015 when Matt’s younger brother, Mitch, found himself holding the Grand Champion purple ribbon with a natural-colored ram in the junior show at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville, Ky. Mitch also took home the Grand Champion ribbon in the National Junior Tunis Show that same weekend, and Matt showed the Grand Champion Ewe in the North American International Tunis Open Show.
Though he can now only show in the open category, Matt still does whenever he has the chance.
“There’s a show in Troy we try to go to every year because that’s the group I grew up with,” Matt said. “There were 11 of us who showed together from the time we were little kids until we aged out. To this day, we still try to get together at least every other month.”
The camaraderie is the part of raising and showing sheep he said he most enjoys.
“It’s the family aspect of showing,” Matt said. “I’ve gained friends for a lifetime. I have two boys now. They each have 10 sheep. They aren’t big enough to show yet, but I want them to get that same feeling that always comes from doing this.”
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