As the sun rises over a feedlot in a northern corner of San Angelo on a late September morning; a large group of sheep, heavy with overgrown layers of wool, kicks up clouds of dust as they nervously shift around a holding pen.
The San Angelo Standard-Times reports they look for a way out of the narrow corridor leading to a dilapidated barn. The animals seemingly never take their eyes off the two men setting up the equipment for the day.
Under the watchful stare of the flock, the men unload two small motors with long, thin, articulated pipes attached. Connected at the end are electric shearers that can, in the right set of hands, shave a full grown sheep in under two minutes.
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The men oil their shearers and replace a part on one set before sitting down to wait for the others that will eventually show up to help with the day's work. While they wait, one of the men takes off his shoes and pulls on a pair of tattered protective pads over a set of knees, bruised and battered from nearly six decades of removing wool from sheep.
Severo Soto and Pete Estrada have been shearing sheep together in San Angelo and across the country since they were teenagers. Both are now in their 70s. And, according to them, after they retire there may not be any local sheep shearers left to continue a line of work that requires a skilled set of hands.
"There are other guys that used to do this but they quit," Soto said. "They quit shearing and now they do concrete work or they work in the oil fields. Now, it's just me and Pete. There used to be a lot of people shearing sheep in San Angelo, maybe around 20 contractors. We used to shear a lot of lambs and sheep around here. They used to have to bring them in by train. But now, no one wants them anymore."
After about an hour of waiting, Soto and Estrada are joined by their colleagues. It's not long before the first group of sheep is brought into the barn and the work begins. The pace is fast.
One by one, sheep covered in dreadlocks of wool hanging from their bodies caked with dirt and grime are dragged toward a shearing station. The time between when a sheep is plucked from the flock to being fully shorn is only minutes.
The nearly 80-year-old rawhide hands of Soto move deftly across the animal's body, clutching a pair of shears that appear to be nearly the same age as their handler.
Afterward, a pile of wool lies on the floor and a nearly naked sheep returns to the group. Soto and Estrada, along with their colleagues from out of town, will do this for hours. But, despite Soto and Estrada's enthusiasm to continue working, they both said they are slowing down.
And when they do decide to hang up their shears, Estrada said despite their best efforts, there may not be anyone waiting in the wings to pick them up.
"The younger generation wants nothing to do with it," Estrada said. "We are about it. There's a few around here that still do it but not many. We've had guys come out and we try to teach them. They work a few days and then go look for a different job. We don't have many sheep and we don't have many shearers. We used to shear 180 to 200 sheep a day. Now, we shear maybe 80 sheep a day. It's not like it used to be."
Soto, who has a bad knee and wears a brace after having surgery on his back, said he plans to keep shearing as long as he can, undeterred by the physical toll the job takes on his body.
"My father was a sheep shearer. He sheared `til he was 80 years old. My brother used to shear but his knees started to hurt and he couldn't shear anymore. I don't know when I'm gonna quit. I don't want to quit. I don't want to stay home," Soto said.