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LAVINA -- The sheep were coming fast into the shearing wagon, as fast as the five cutters inside could wrestle each 140-pound animal onto its back for a close shave.

At the front of the line, Ralph McWilliams peered out the wagon door at the blue Montana sky and the seemingly endless supply of pregnant Rambouillets waiting their turn.

In the distance, a hired hand was driving yet another flock from an outlying pasture of the Lehfeldt Ranch. Two hundred ewes down, about 2,100 to go.

In Montana sheep country, this is how spring arrives, in the back of a red shearing wagon rolling from ranch to ranch, cutting fleece from pregnant ewes a week or so before they give birth. The timing of the haircut spares the profitable fleece from messy birth and assures that soon-to-be-born lambs will find their mother's milk more easily.

"It's hard work. We burn 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day," said McWilliams, tugging the cap from his water bottle for a quick drink before grabbing another ewe. Those are calories the shearer will have to wait to eat because shearing sheep means spending the entire day bent over at the waist. A full stomach just gets in the way.

Ranch wives often feed the crew because the nearest store or restaurant may be an hour from the job.

Meals aside, the going rate is about $2.50 a fleece, or $350 to $400 a day, depending on how fast the shearer cuts.

The shearing whips the ranch into a frenzy of production and concern for what comes next -- both because lambs are on the way and because ewes so tightly shorn their pink skin is visible are now vulnerable to bad weather.

"If it gets cold, especially if it rains or snows, they can die of hypothermia," said Bob Lehfeldt, who was concerned about a cold front moving into the area. It would be up to the rancher to make sure the flock of more than 2,000 made it through the next few weeks. The challenge is daunting.

As the shearers cut, Lehfeldt and his son, Ben, walked the production line, helping wherever needed and enjoying a workplace more multicultural than most in Montana. Outside, the Lehfeldts' crew of Peruvian shepherds rounded up ewes and drove them into a chute leading to the shearing wagon. A boom box on a barn shelf played everything from Bossa Nova to South American pop, as the bilingual crew coaxed the ewes along with the help of border collies taking orders in Spanish and English.

Immediately outside the shearing wagon, two Australian women busily picked through freshly cut fleeces, removing manure and the occasional blood spot.

The women collected fleeces through a hole in the bottom of the trailer wall and stuffed them into a compactor that pressed them into 500-pound bales.

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Grabbing a handful of wool, Theresa Saunders quickly appraised its value by pulling on its ends to test for stress.

If a sheep at any point in the year has been sick or faced a physical challenge, the wool will often break at the point on the fiber that was new when the trauma occurred, Saunders said. The longer the fiber, the more valuable the wool. So, you don't want your wool to fail the stress test in the middle of the fiber.

Dirt is another issue. The outside of any fleece has some dust, but if the dust continues deep into the fleece, that, too, reduces the fleece's worth. Finally, Saunders checks the diameter of each fiber.  The finer the diameter, the more valuable the wool, because it won't irritate human skin the way coarse wool can.

The Lehfeldts raise Rambouillets (pronounced "ram-bew-lay"), which are known for their fine wool. Rambouillets originated from the Merino flocks of Spain. Merinos produce wool so fine that Spain forbade the animals from being exported until the late 1700s, because the nation didn't want to lose its market edge. When finally the Spanish king relented to French demands for Merino rams and ewes, the culled sheep were relocated to Rambouillet farm, near Paris.

Lehfeldt's Rambouillets will lamb for several weeks this month, with roughly half the ewes giving birth to twins.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.