Handling sheep may not come with the safety risk seen with cattle, but considering 40% of any handling event can be spent moving stock, ensuring systems are set up correctly goes a long way to reducing labour inputs and sheep stress.
And according to livestock handling expert Miriam Parker of LivestockWise, stockmen can make significant steps to improve their systems by understanding and exploiting normal sheep behaviour.
“It is better to make use of a sheep’s willingness to learn to negotiate a system rather than use fear as the motivator,” she says.
There are several areas of sheep behaviour that should be considered when designing or modifying a handling system:
• Sheep are highly visually orientated. Seeing other sheep moving will encourage stock to move, equally being unable to see around a corner to other sheep will stop movement
• Being able to see human movement in a treatment race for example may also halt sheep.How does it influence handling?
• The choice of open or closed-sided races will be system specific
• The best systems have solid sides in some areas and open sides in others
• Give sheep a clear view towards the area they are expected to go
• An open side on the outer curve of the yard helps draw sheep around
• Solid sides will help block the sight of stationary sheep in holding pens.
Predator/prey relationship and flight zone
• The fact that sheep are a prey species is pivotal to how they react to their surroundings
• Handling will generally produce a flight response
• A dog used for rounding up sheep will be viewed as a predator
• Equally, sheep will learn person and place association, so a stockman that always administers a jab will also be viewed as a predatorHow does it influence handling?
• Movements should not be ‘fear motivated’
• Unruly dogs used in handling systems should be removed as they could be counterproductive, focusing sheep’s attention on them rather the direction they need to go
• When you can’t run sheep through your handling system without the use of a dog, there is a problem with your set-up
• Repeated handling can reduce a sheep’s fear response.
Following and flocking
• Sheep are followers – they tend to copy the behaviour of other flock members, such as feeding or resting
• A group of three or more sheep will flock together as a survival mechanism
• Sheep will only move when they see other sheep movingHow does it influence handling?
As soon as lambs are weaned, you have a group of naïve animals which don’t know where to go. By introducing a couple of cull ewes into the group, you can encourage flocking behaviour.
In a large group of lambs, a minimum of three nannies may be required, since three animals are needed to start a flock.
Some markets have installed mirrors in their stock ring to encourage sheep into the ring. This could be used at farm level, but again, it will be system specific. When doing so, ensure mirrors are positioned in the correct place to reflect moving sheep – the sight of stationary sheep will slow them down.
• Sheep have above average learning ability, something which is often masked because of their flighty behaviour
• Sheep will learn a system quicker than cattle, and have the capability to be trained
• They will quickly learn place/person association
• Training will have to be tailored to specific breeds and types.How does it influence handling?
• Use the same handling route for all treatments/procedures
• Set up the system so they are used to being run through, and keep the layout consistent
• Ensure sheep can’t see the vet when they are being run through a system
• Try to reduce the severity of any treatment.
Key handling considerations
• Sheep should come to you, rather than have to be pushed through a system
• There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to sheep handling set up – breed, environment and shepherding characteristics will all influence handling technique and as such will be farm specific
• The idea panic and chase is needed to move sheep through a handling system is incorrect – the key is to work with the animal’s natural behaviour
• Sheep should walk through a race in a steady, controlled manner
Forcing or crowding area design
• The shape of the force pen is critical
• A 30-40º angle to the race is critical – funnelled races cause jumping and jamming
• The lead-up to the forcing area should be about 3m wide
• Sheep run well as a bunch in a straight, 1.5m wide crowding area – only when stock are in single file do curved races work better than straight
Assessing your system
1) Look at sheep behaviour as they are being run through a system
• Are animals stopping, turning or trying to break out at certain points? Make a sketch of your system and make a cross on the area where sheep are showing undesirable behaviour
• Sheep should never have to be manhandled with their wool – if you are having to do so, your system is not working
2) Get down on your hands and knees at sheep level to see what they are seeing
• Are there any dead ends or areas that may solicit panic?
3) Measure your sheep – there is no ‘average’ figure for sheep
• When a race is any wider than the width across the shoulders, then a sheep will be able to turn round – when sheep are routinely turning round, this is a sign the race is too wide
• When buying a handling system ‘off the peg’ ensure dimensions are set appropriately
• Turning may have to be accepted when also using a race for lambs
Case study – Jake Freestone, Overbury Farms, Gloucester
Ninety degree angles and poor funnelling had made handling sheep at Overbury farms a labour-intensive job. However, after an on-farm workshop explained how stock viewed their surroundings, the farm was able to make significant improvements to the system layout.
Our original system was installed in the mid-1960s – not only was it ready for modernisation, but we were also experiencing problems with sheep flow, explains farm manager Jake Freestone.
A lot of the pens were angular, resulting in animals stopping and not funnelling in the required direction. As a result, there was a lot of unnecessary movement of both sheep and shepherds.
By viewing the handling system from sheep level and wearing a pair of goggles to simulate how a sheep views its surrounding, farm workers at Overbury were surprised at how restricted a sheep’s vision was.
“This explained why sheep flow was not ideal – stock couldn’t see where they were going,” says Mr Freestone.
The 90º entrance into the circular force pen has since been modified into a curved race with sheeted hurdles. An additional race has also been added for handling lambs.
“We used to handle ewes and lambs in the same race, but experienced issues with lambs turning round.” The narrower second race allows closer control and includes an electronic weigh crate.
By addressing group size and handling smaller and denser groups of ewes, control has also been improved.
“Generally, sheep move better under their own steam. Although we still use dogs a bit, we do not rely on them as much,” Mr Freestone explains.
“Speed and efficiency with stockmen has also been significantly improved because they do not need to walk up and down the pens to push sheep forward.”
According to Mr Freestone, considering what the system is used for is also important when designing layouts. “In the larger race we now have a footbath and have designed it so a race full of stock can stand in the footbath while we treat the group behind them. The smaller race also makes it a lot easier when selecting fat lambs.”
To help handling of lambs post-weaning, nanny ewes are also introduced into lamb batches. “We include one or two nanny ewes for each group of 400 lambs – it’s incredibly easy to do and helps when moving lambs from the field to housing or through the handling system.”
Read more about Overbury Farms in the 4 March edition of Farmers Weekly, where Jake Freestone will be featured as part of the Business section’s Management Matters.
View EBLEX’s guide Improving Sheep Handling for Better Return
To read our article about reducing lamb losses click here.
To read our article on raising surplus lambs click here.