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Group of lambs
Group of lambs

Bluefaced Leicester ewe
The size of a sheep's
flight zone varies

Sheep on halters
Sheep on halters

Holding a lamb
Handling reduces the flight zone

Sheep chair
Sheep chair
Image source: Premier 1 Supplies

Gambrel restrainer
Gambrel restrainer

 Handling system for sheep and goats
Handling system

Ewes in foot bath
In chute

Working sheep Gathering pen

 Sheep in handling system
Solid panels

Body condition scoring in a chute
Body condition scoring in a chute

Automatic tilt table
Automatic tilt table

Deworming lambs in a chute
Deworming in a chute

3/4 SAMM x 1/4 Rambouillet
Holding a ram

Working dog
Herding dog
(image from Pipedream Farm)

Single file
Single file

Handling sheep and lambs

Though frequency and need varies, it is usually necessary to handle sheep several times per year for various reasons. Without an easy way to handle sheep and lambs, important tasks often get delayed or forgotten. Improper handling causes needless stress to both the sheep and the handler(s).

Basic concepts of livestock handling

A thorough understanding of sheep behavior is the first step towards developing an effective method of handling sheep. Their strong flocking and following behavior tends to make sheep easy to handle, relative to other livestock species. Conversely, sheep will prove difficult to handle if you force them to act in ways that are not natural for them.

Reasons for handling sheep
Body condition scoring
Ear tagging
FAMACHA© scoring
Foot soaking
Hoof trimming

Pregnancy testing
Ultrasound scanning

Flight zone

One of the most basic concepts in handling sheep and other livestock is the flight zone. All animals have a flight zone. A flight zone is an animal's personal space. It is where the animal feels comfortable and unthreatened. When a person is outside the animal's flight zone, the animal will turn and face the handler.

It is best to work on the outside of an animal's flight zone. If the flight zone is penetrated too deeply, animal behavior can be unpredictable and dangerous. Sheep are not large, but they are quick on their feet and strong for their size. Pile-ups can result in small enclosures, causing injury to the animals, especially the small or weak ones.

The size of an animal's flight zone varies. It depends how wild or tame the animal is. Sheep that have not had much human contact will have a large flight zone, whereas pet sheep may not have a flight zone. Sheep confined to a small space will have a smaller flight zone than sheep confined to a large area. Frequent, gentle handling tends to diminish the size of the flight zone. At the same time, sheep have excellent memories and can remember rough handling.

Point of balance
Point of balance is another important livestock handling concept. The point of balance is at the animal's shoulder. All species of livestock will move forward if the handler steps behind the point of balance. They will back up if the handler stands in front of the point of balance. Many people make the mistake of standing in front of the point of balance while trying to get livestock to move forward through a chute. Sheep will usually refuse to move if they see people up ahead.

Moving sheep
Very often, you need to move sheep, to bring them in from a pasture or to move them to another pasture. If you don't have a herding dog to fetch the sheep, you can train the sheep to come to a vocal command or rattle of the feed bucket. Most sheep will come when they think they are going to get grain to eat.

If these don't work, it will be necessary to go out to the field to get the flock and either drive them from behind or lead them with a feed bucket or lead sheep. Pet sheep are difficult to drive and make good lead sheep. If the sheep aren't familiar with where you want to move them, you may need several people to act as herders. Always move sheep slowly, calmly, and quietly. Do not allow splinter groups to develop.

To move individual sheep, hold the sheep under its jaw and push its dock ("go-button"). Small numbers of sheep can be halter-broken for ease of moving and handling. Attempting to lead a sheep that is not halter-broken is usually a futile exercise.

Catching sheep

There are situations in which you need to catch an individual sheep. If you do not have a handling system to assist you, you can use gates and panels to make a small catch pen. You should make the pen small enough so that you do not have to chase the sheep. The smaller the catch pen, the easier it will be to catch the sheep. No one likes to chase sheep and the more you chase sheep, the harder it will become to catch them, not to mention the unnecessary stress you are causing both of you.

Once the sheep are in the catch pen, maneuver them into a corner and use your arms or a portable gate to form a visual barrier. Always approach sheep calmly and slowly. Cup your hand under the jaw of the sheep you want. Grab the bony part of the jaw, not the throat. Point the sheep's nose upward to stop its forward motion. If you keep the sheep's head up, you will be able to maintain control of it. Sheep have a lot more power when their head is down. You can also use a shepherd's crook to catch a sheep by the neck.

If you cannot get close enough to the sheep to grab it under its jaw, you can reach for its hind leg or rear flank. Reach for the hind leg above the hock, then move your other hand up to control the head as soon as possible. Adult sheep are able to kick strongly, so this method works best for small sheep or young lambs. To catch an adult sheep, it is better to grab the rear flank. A leg crook can also be used to catch a sheep by the leg. The leg crook is especially useful in open areas.

You should never catch a sheep by its wool. Not only is it painful to the sheep, but it can cause bruising to the carcass.

Restraining sheep

There are many different ways to restrain a sheep, depending upon what you need to do to it. Once you've caught the sheep, you can press it against a wall or straddle it to limit its movement. A halter is one of the easiest ways to restrain a sheep for treatment or close inspection.

Tipping sheep
If you want to trim a sheep's hooves or gain access to its underside you'll probably want to set the sheep on its rump. Setting a sheep on its rump is called tipping. Sheep in this position struggle very little and are easy to work with. To rest comfortable on its rump, the sheep should be off center, so that it is sitting on its hip and not is dock. If the sheep struggles, you can place a hand on its brisket to move it into a better position. There are several ways to tip a sheep. The method you use often depends upon the size of the sheep. Here's a common method for tipping sheep.

How to tip a sheep
  1. Stand to the side of the sheep.
  2. Hold the sheep's head in your left hand by placing your hand under its jaw.
  3. Your left knee should be near or just behind the sheep's left shoulder.
  4. Your right leg should be touching the sheep's side near its left hip.
  5. Place your right hand on the sheep's back over the hips.
  6. Turn the sheep's nose away from you towards its shoulder.
  7. You should feel the weight of the sheep lean against your legs.
  8. Put pressure on the hips with your right hand so the sheep cannot pick its back feet off the floor.
  9. Take a step back with your right leg.
  10. The hind leg of the sheep should start to go down.
  11. Continue to bring the head around until the sheep is sitting down with its back leaning against your legs.

Tipping larger sheep can be more difficult. A large sheep can be tipped by reaching underneath its body and grabbing its farthest legs, until it drops to its rump. Sometimes, this is a two person job. Small sheep or lambs can usually be tipped by holding them under their front legs, lifting them, and using your knee to push their rumps out.

Restraining devices

Mechanical restraining devices make it easier, faster, and safer for one person to handle a sheep. A gambrel restrainer is a device made out of PVC plastic. It is placed over the sheep's neck and has slots on either side to hold both front legs of the sheep. Without the use of its front feet or the ability to raise its head, the sheep is immobilized. Hunters use gambrels to hang animal carcasses.

A sheep "chair" holds a sheep on its rump in the shearing position. The chair consists of a metal frame with a plastic netting or mesh that is attached to the top and bottom of the chair. The frame is hooked over a gate or leaned against a building. The sheep is backed into the chair, until it "sits." The primary purpose of a sheep chair is to position and restrain a sheep for hoof trimming; however, in this position many other things can be done to the sheep. The chair provides easy access to the sheep's ears, mouth, brisket, udder, and testicles. It can also be used for a caesarian section. The chair is laid out flat and the sheep's legs are tied to the frame.

A trimming or blocking stand can be used to restrain a sheep for various purposes. Stands allow you to work on a sheep without bending over. A neck piece holds the sheep secure. Most sheep quickly learn not to step over the edges of the table. Some stands have a winch which allows the user to raise and lower the deck of the chair.

A turning cradle or tilt table squeezes the sheep and turns it on its side or upside down. Cradles and tilt tables are easier to use when they are attached to a chute. The primary purpose of these devices is hoof trimming. Hoof trimming is one of the most laborious tasks associated with sheep raising. If you have a lot of sheep, a turn table can "save" your back.

A shearing table restrains a sheep for shearing and enable a producer to do his own shearing. It is especially useful for producers who lack the skill or physical ability to shear sheep the conventional way.

While all restraining devices will cause some degree of stress, they should not cause pain to the sheep. Sheep will remember bad experiences and the person causing their pain. Sheep can be trained to accept voluntary restraint and under research conditions have demonstrated the ability to select the least stressful method of restraint.

Sheep handling equipment

In a small flock, sheep can be handled while they are crowded into a small pen. For a larger flock, a handling system is recommended. A handling system is a set of inter-connecting working pens. How many sheep are needed to justify the expense of a handling system depends upon the need for handling, the cost of the system, and the preferences of the shepherd. Handling systems usually pay for themselves quickly.

Sheep handling systems can be constructed out of wood, steel (galvanized or painted), or aluminum. They can be permanent or portable facilities. Building plans for sheep handling systems and individual components are available from USDA (some extension offices and web sites) and the MidWest (MWPS) and Canada Plan Service. Handling systems that work for sheep are usually suitable for goats.

The complexity of a sheep handling system usually depends upon the flock size and the need for handling. The basic components of a handling system are a gathering pen, crowding pen, chute, and cutting or sorting gate.

Gathering pen
The gathering pen is a large enclosed area that is used to receive the sheep before they are put into the crowding pen. It should be large enough to accommodate the largest number of animals that will be worked at one time. It may need to be big enough to hold all the ewes and their lambs at one time. Five to six square feet per ewe and 3 to 4 square feet per lamb is recommended. The panels and gates used to make the gathering pen should be open. The gathering pen may serve other uses on the farm.

Crowding pen
The crowding (or forcing) pen is used to direct sheep into a chute. It can also be used to select individual animals for treatment or to closely inspect them. The crowding pen can serve as a catch pen for small flocks. Crowding pens can be circular or rectangular in shape. The sides should be solid, so that the sheep will not be distracted, and they will follow their flock mates into the chute.

The chute (or raceway) is where the sheep will move through, usually in a single file. The front end of the chute should be kept open so that the sheep don't see a dead end. Sheep must always think there is a way out. Once the chute is full, the shepherd usually stands outside of it and reaches over the side to treat and handle the sheep.

Once all the sheep have been worked, they are sorted and/or released and the chute is refilled with sheep from the crowding pen, which in turn is refilled with sheep from the gathering pen. Young lambs will flow through the handling system more easily if they are with well-trained older sheep for the first few times. A lead animal can also be used to get the flock started through the chute.

The length of the chute tends to vary by flock size, but should be a least 8 feet long. Longer chutes can be divided with gates. These gates should be see through. Proper chute width is critical. The chute must be narrow enough so that the sheep cannot turn around. Most chutes have sloping and/or adjusting sides to accommodate different size animals and fleece lengths.

Anti-backup devices can be installed to prevent the sheep from backing or piling up. The chute should not be taller than 36 inches, otherwise the shepherd won't be able to reach over it. At the end of the chute, there should be a cutting or sorting gate which leads to holding pens, a loading ramp, or back to pasture.

The handling system may include other components such as a turn table or cradle, head gate, elevated platform, scales, foot troughs, or loading ramp. A head gate locks the sheep's head so that it cannot move forward or backwards. Any number of tasks can be performed when an animal is secured in a head gate. Foot troughs can be set in the chute and filled with chemicals to treat or prevent foot rot or foot scald. Working sheep on an elevated platform will reduce bending.

Herding dogs

A well-trained herding dog can save a shepherd a great deal of time and effort when gathering, holding, and moving sheep. At the same time, a poorly trained herding dog will do more harm than good and will greatly stress the sheep. The use of herding dogs utilizes the predator-prey relationship.

Many breeds of dogs have been used for working sheep, but the Border Collie is the most popular. Because a good dog is measured by its herding performance, Border Collies do not have a uniform appearance. Though generally of medium size (25-55 pounds), they vary in size, color, and hair coat. Border Collies are highly intelligent and full of energy. They are not always suitable as (just) pets

Success with a herding dog starts with purchasing a puppy from a reputable breeder -- not from a pet shop, "puppy mill" or breeder who raises "show" dogs. A dog's conformation has little to do with its ability to work sheep. A good working dog comes from good working parents.

There are numerous resources on training herding dogs. A reputable breeder should offer advice on starting and training a pup. If you don't have the time to properly train a herding dog, consider purchasing a trained or started dog.


Late updated 19-Apr-2021 by Susan Schoenian.
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