PHOTO: StephenMitchell/Flickr
Stephany Wilkes
September 25, 2017

The American Sheep Industry Association recently released a new version of its popular Sheep Care Guide, available free in PDF format. The guidelines come from current research in animal science, veterinary medicine and agricultural engineering. I read the whole Sheep Care Guide and today share some highlights. Overall, the more I learn about sheep, the less I seem to know. This summary will give you a start, but, like me, you should read the whole guide.

1. Family Flocks Are Growing

Hobby farmers deserve congratulations and thanks. The number of family-owned flocks is increasing, according to the Sheep Care Guide, and “single producers or families manage a substantial portion of the sheep in the United States.” They work hard at it, too, as “many operations do not employ outside assistance.”

2. Sheep Get Stressed But Are Adaptable

The Sheep Care Guide reminds us what sheep stress looks like, noting “panting or increased respiratory rate, tooth grinding, restlessness or nervousness, reduced feed consumption or grazing activity, poor growth rates and poor reproductive performance.”

The guide also keeps things in perspective. It assures us that “Not all stresses result in harm.” Sheep adapt, as “when a guardian dog is introduced to a flock for the first time. There is initial anxiety or fright … but eventually the sheep accept the dog as part of their normal environment.”

Similarly, if a sheep’s first experience to a new handling system is less than positive, the animal “may develop a strong aversion to entering the facility later.” But a sheep’s “previously learned aversion to a stressful handling procedure may diminish over time if it is not repeated.”

3. Sheep Move In Surprising Ways

The Sheep Care Guide section about sheep movement contains fascinating tidbits. I did not know that:

  • Sheep prefer to move uphill, and inclines should be gradual.
  • Reflections, bright spots and shadows cause sheep to balk, as will sheep chutes that require sheep to move into blinding sunlight. Moving sheep from darkened to light areas eases movement.
  • Sheep instinctively move into the wind. Consider this “when determining the location of working facilities and watering sites,” especially “when sheep are kept on open range or in large pastures.”

4. Transport Sheep In Humane Ways

Plenty of hobby farmers take sheep to state fairs and fiber shows, and humane sheep transport is important.

In general, transporting sheep “full of green feed increases stress and soiling,” but rules of thumb on feed and transport vary based on trip duration. Withholding feed for 15 to 18 hours prior to loading reduces animal stress for trips of eight hours or less. For trips that exceed eight hours, lightly feed and water sheep two to three hours before loading. And, if transportation time exceeds 48 hours, plan to either unload and rest sheep or give them sufficient space to lie down.

5. Learn & Know Your Area’s Regulations

“Some states require formal manure-management plans for livestock farms exceeding specified sizes,” according to the Sheep Care Guide, and regulations also apply to the disposal of dead sheep. Depending on where you live, not all safe animal disposal options are necessarily legal. Producers should familiarize themselves “with state and local ordinances governing dead animal disposal and develop a plan to handle losses.”

6. Create & Maintain An Emergency Plan

An occasional farm sitter, I found the section on emergency planning especially thoughtful. Emergency plans should include a list of emergency contacts sufficiently familiar with the farm and sheep to help care for them.

All emergency plans should be prominently displayed and include information about sources of emergency feed and water supplies. They also should contain contact information for local law enforcement authorities, fire and rescue squads, veterinary practitioners and the state veterinarian’s office, not to mention the local or regional emergency management agency.

7. Maintain Safe Feed & Water

The nutrition section of the Sheep Care Guide recommends gradual changes in diet to allow rumen microorganisms to adequately adapt and avoid digestive distress.

Finally, I appreciated the guide’s recommendations on feed handling to prevent mistakes and unintended harm. Feedstuffs, feed troughs and water supplies need to be protected from contamination by chemicals, foreign materials and manure. Fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and other chemicals should be stored separate from feed, and we should “locate feeders and waterers away from each other in the feedlot.”

The updated Sheep Care Guide contains a lot more than I can summarize here. Take advantage of the excellent, practical and free document. Thanks, American Sheep Industry Association!



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