On the Road fans, Taylor and I are in Valley Springs, South Dakota, on a sheep producing ranch where we found a sheep whisperer who has been doing an incredibly valuable profession for 57 years.
“He gets them down and gets his face right in their ear and he starts talking. And she just settled right down and he sheared her up. We got our big Ram,” said Dave Muhmel. “Tom started talking to him and that big guy sat there, he sheared along and all like, all the sudden, ‘Oh you missed a spot Tom, right back here.”
Dave Muhmel is a sheep rancher just outside of Valley Springs, South Dakota. He contacted “On the Road” about sheep shearer Tom Corcoran who lives east of Flandreau, who he calls “A Sheep Whisperer.”
“He just handles them so gently. He doesn’t get in a hurry with them. They don’t get spooked. They don’t fight him. You start pushing these sheep, and they’ll blow up on you. So no, he does a fantastic job. It’s awesome.”
Tom started shearing sheep a long, long time ago, back when my own Grandpa Victor Guthmiller and my Uncle Delmar did, in the olden days of this sometimes-forgotten profession.
“I told them, ‘I can do anything.’ So I caught sheep all that winter, and then the next spring, in May, they asked me, one guy asked me if I wanted to try to learn to shear. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll try anything once you know.’,” said Tom Corcoran. “When I was 20 years old. I’m 76 now, so it was 56 years ago last May.”
“That’s a lot of sheep shearing, Tom,” said Mike Huether.
“That’d be a pile of sheep if you had them all in one place,” said Tom Corcoran.
Dr. Jeff Held recently retired after 30 years as Professor of Animal Science and Sheep Extension Specialist at South Dakota State University. “South Dakota is one of the major sheep producing states in, in the US and this region and including parts of Iowa and Minnesota. You know, the sheep production is a big part of the, big part of the fabric of livestock enterprise,” said Jeff Held.
With approximately 2000 sheep producers and 200,000 ewes in South Dakota, sheep shearers like Tom Corcoran are vital to the industry.
“Tom’s an example of a… of a generation that has sheared for a long period of time,” said Jeff Held. “They have the will and the skill and the care for the livestock, as well as, the understanding how important they are in the production model of sheep production.”
“I’ve never went to a sheep shearing school in my life. All home taught,” said Tom Corcoran. “I’ve patterned off of other shearers that when I watched shearers, I figured out what they was doing that worked so good for them.”
“The sheep, you know, follow him around in the positions that are, that he was trained on long ago,” said Jeff Held. “The process of the training of sheep shearers, and Tom is a great example, where the sheep is at comfort and the shearers at comfort.”
“Trying to hurry, that clipper, and what your gonna do, is you’re gonna nick them more. You’re gonna cause them to fight more. And you’ll spend more time fighting them than you will shearing,” said Tom Corcoran. “Animals are a lot smarter that we give them credit for. Some people call them dumb sheep, but just try to outsmart them.”
Let’s just say, that over the last 56 years, Tom has made one heck of an impact on local farmers and ranchers, just like Dave, with this back breaking work. Dave used to shear his own sheep. No more!
“I’d starve to death shearing sheep cause I just can’t do enough because it’s, you’re bent over all the time and I mean you’re working hard,” said Dave Muhmel.
Shearing sheep has become even more demanding over the years as sheep production has evolved. The biggest evolution is the sheep got bigger.
“When Tom was 20, that’s one thing, but now that he’s 76,” said Mike Huether.
“Yeah,” said Dave Muhmel.
“That’s… that’s another. How does he do it?” asked Mike Huether.
“I don’t know, but I’m not shearing sheep as long as he’s doing it,” said Dave Muhmel.
“I can still shear big sheep, but nobody likes to shear big sheep because they’re so awful big,” said Tom Corcoran.
“But you’re doing it at age 76 with really no issues,” said Mike Huether.
“Yeah, I can still do it,” said Tom Corcoran. “We get purebred flocks, that their averaging 275-pound ewes you know, 400-pound bucks. They should have bred us sheep shearers when they bred the sheep up so we would be about seven-foot-tall and six-foot arms, because we’re, we’re getting behind on it.”
Tom estimates that he has sheared around 800,000 sheep in his lifetime. 800,000! And most of that time, the job was completed in the bitter, cold months of winter. “In these cold barns, you get all sweaty. And then you cool off, and boy that tightens your muscles up so you is, there’s no way getting around pain at this job. We’re supposed to suffer,” said Tom Corcoran.
“Why do you keep doing it?: asked Mike Huether.
“I just like it,” said Tom Corcoran. “It’s always been a good living. I’ve raised a family, and paid for an acreage. Put money away. My Dad always said, ‘Anybody can make money, but it takes a smart man to put some away for old age.’ “
Yes, even though Tom may be getting a bit older, I don’t see him retiring any time soon. Mentally and physically, he is still a young buck.
“I can pass a physical with flying colors. I had one last winter. The doctor told me that I only got a 17% chance of having a heart attack or a stroke in the next 10 years, and I says, ‘Oh my that’s good’, but I says, ‘It’s also bad.’ I says, ‘That means I gotta live another 10 years and pay taxes.’,” joked Tom Corcoran
“I’ll tell you what I got, it’s hard keeping up with him, packing the wool, and all that. Yeah, you move right along,” said Dave Muhmel.
“And you’re the young buck,” said Mike Huether.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. But as long a Tom’s shearing, I not shearing anymore,” said Dave Muhmel.
For the past 20 years, South Dakota State University has offered a sheep shearing program associated with the South Dakota Sheep Growers, as well as, the American Sheep Industry Associations. Over the years, more and more of the participants have been female, so the sheep shearing industry is certainly evolving.