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Lamb tails
Lamb tails

Young lamb
Undocked lamb

Elastrator
Elastrator

Electric docker
Electric docker

Burdizzo
Burdizzo

Emasculator
Emasculator

Scalpel
Scalpel

All-in-one
All-in-one tool

Properly docked lamb
Properly docked lamb

lamb #50
Longer tail dock

Extreme tail dock
Tail docked too short

wethers
Wethers

Charollais ram
Docked Charollais ram

Young Katahdin males
Undocked hair sheep lambs


 

Docking and castrating

Docking is when the tail is shortened. Castration is when the testicles are removed or destroyed. Both are routine management practices on most sheep farms in the United States and other developed countries. According to the 2011 NAHSM Survey, 80.5 percent of US lambs were docked. Nearly 7 out of 10 operations castrated ram lambs.

Docking

Docking improves the health and welfare of sheep and lambs. It prevents fecal matter from accumulating on the tail and hindquarters of the animal. Research has shown that tail docking reduces the risk of fly strike (wool maggots), while having no ill effects on lamb mortality or production. Docking facilitates shearing and crutching. It makes it easier to observe the ewe's udder and detect potential birthing problems.

Some markets (lamb buyers) discriminate against tailed lambs, since having a tail lowers the dressing percent (yield) of the lamb and removal of the tail during processing requires extra labor. On the other hand, ethnic buyers of lambs often prefer undocked lambs. For the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice, unblemished lambs are often preferred for harvest. An unblemished lamb is one that has not been docked, castrated, or had its horns removed.

Not all sheep require tail docking. Because hair sheep lambs do not have long, wooly tails, it is usually not necessary to shorten their tails. Lambs from the Northern European short-tail breeds also do not require docking. Fat-tailed sheep are usually not docked. Some producers of wooled lambs do not dock their lambs or they only dock the ewe lambs. If lambs are sold at a young age or their hindquarters can be kept clean, it may be possible to leave their tails on, without affecting health and hygiene.

Sheep breeds that generally do not require tail docking

Hair sheep
Short-tailed sheep
American Blackbelly
Barbados Blackbelly
Damara
Dorper
Katahdin
Pelibüey
Royal White
Santa Inês
St. Augustine
St. Croix
West African
East Friesian
Finnsheep
Gotland
Icelandic
Romanov
Soay
Shetland

It is natural for a sheep to have a tail. The tail does not interfere with breeding or lambing. The tail protects the ewe's vulva and udder from weather extremes. To some extent, sheep use their tail to scatter their feces. Tail length is the most heritable trait in sheep. A sheep's tail is halfway between the length of its two parents. Scientists are trying to breed wooled sheep with short tails that do not require docking.


Banding

The easiest and most common method of tail docking is to apply a rubber ring (or band) to the tail using an elastrator or ring extender. Banding is a bloodless method of tail docking. The band cuts off the blood supply to the tail, causing the tail to atrophy and fall off in several weeks. Some producers cut the tail off before it falls off.

Banding causes some pain to the lamb, but the pain is generally short-lived. Pain varies by lamb and may have to do with placement of the band, on or between vertabrae. Pain can be reduced if a clamp is applied across the tail immediately distal to the ring. The use of a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine, can be used to reduce the pain felt by the lamb. However, this is not usually practical as lidocaine is not available for purchase over-the-counter. Only veterinarians may prescribe the use of lidocaine. Over-the-counter pain relievers may be available in other countries to producers.

Lambs should be at least 24 hours old before bands are applied; otherwise, banding may interfere with bonding and colostrum intake. Bands should only be applied during the lamb's first week of life. In fact, there is a law in the United Kingdom that restricts banding to the first week of a lamb's life. Though not mandated, producers in the U.S. and other countries are encouraged to follow this practice.

When bands are used to dock tails, it is very important that lambs be protected against tetanus (lockjaw), as the rubber ring creates an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment that is favorable to the tetanus organism. If the lamb's dam was not vaccinated or her vaccination status is unknown, the tetanus anti-toxin can be administered at the time of tail docking. The anti-toxin provides immediate short-term immunity whereas tetanus toxoid, while longer lasting, takes 10 days to 2 weeks to elicit any immune response.

Other tail docking methods

An electric docking iron cuts and cauterizes the tail simultaneously and is probably the most humane method of tail docking. It can be used on older lambs. An emasculator has both a cutting and crushing mechanism. It can be used for tail docking. The crushing mechanism seals the blood vessels on the tail remaining on the lamb, while the cutting edge effectively removes the tail. The emasculator should be left on the tail for approximately 30 seconds to help prevent bleeding.

A Burdizzo is similar to an emasculator except it does not have a cutting mechanism. A knife should be used to cut off the tail (inside the Burdizzo). A "baby" (9 in.) burdizzo should be used for lambs. It is not recommended that tails be cut off with a knife or scalpel, as this technique can cause excessive bleeding. It is also the most painful method tail docking.


How long?

There is some disagreement with regards to how long the docked tail should be. In the United Kingdom, it is a law that the tail stub (dock) be left long enough to cover the ewe's vulva and ram's anus. Most other countries follow similar practices. It is a good management practice.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners, and American Sheep Industry Association recommend that tails be removed no shorter than the distal end of the caudal tail fold. Tails docked shorter than this may result in an increased incidence of rectal prolapses among lambs fed concentrate diets. This is because short-tail docking damages the muscles and nerves used by the lamb's anus.

Ultra-short tail docking may also contribute to the incidence of vaginal prolapses, though there is no research data to support this claim. However, New Zealand researchers found that short-docked ewes suffered higher rates of carcinoma of the vulva. Regardless, there is no justification for ultra-short tail docking for cosmetic reasons.

All lambs should be docked by the time they are 12 weeks old, regardless of the method used. If older lambs and mature sheep are to be docked, the procedure should be performed by a veterinarian using general anesthesia. Though banded lambs are most vulnerable, immunity from tetanus is recommended for all docking methods.


Castration

The need for castration is varies and is based on the management needs of the farm and preference of the market place. Ram lambs grow faster and have better body composition than ewe and wether lambs and when ram lambs are marketed at a young age (less than 6 months), commercial lamb buyers usually do not discriminate in price. Ethnic lamb buyers often prefer intact (or entire) males and may pay a premium for them. Rams are almost always preferred for the Muslim Festival of Sacrifice.

It is usually not necessary to castrate ram lambs for the freezer (or locker) trade or when selling lamb directly to consumers, as there is no siginificant difference in the taste or tenderness of the meat from a young ram lamb versus a wether or ewe lamb. Older rams may have a slight taste difference and may not be as desirable for direct marketing.

During harvest, it can be more difficult to remove the pelt (skin) from a ram lamb, especially one that has started to develop secondary sex characteristics. It may be advisable to castrate ram lambs that cannot be marketed by the time they are six months old.

Most importantly, wether lambs are easier to manage and eliminate the possibilities of early and/or unwanted pregnancies. When ram lambs are kept intact, it is necessary to wean and separate them from their dams and female pen (or pasture) mates by the time they are 4 months of age. If this cannot be done, ram lambs should be castrated. There are not many producers have not had ewes bred "accidently" by ram lambs.

Male lambs sold for grazing or as pets should be castrated as they will be easier to manage.

Banding

As with tail docking, there are many techniques that can be used to castrate ram lambs. The easiest and most common method of castration is the rubber ring or band. The band is placed around the neck of the lamb's scrotum. Care should be taken not to place the band over the lamb's rudimentary teats. Banding will cause the scrotum to shrivel up and fall off in a few weeks. As with docking, the shriveled scrotum may be removed before it falls off. Both testicles must be below the placement of the band. If one testicle is missed, it will be retained in the belly cavity, resulting in a "bucky" lamb that will have male characteristics.

Castration by banding causes some pain to the lamb, but the pain is generally short-lived. Lambs should be castrated at a young age, preferably between 1 and 7 days of age. Earlier castration may interfere with bonding and colostrum intake. As with tail docking, pain can be reduced if a clamp is applied immediately before or after application of the ring.

Some veterinarians advocate the use of lidocaine to reduce the pain felt by the lamb; however, lidocaine is not available for purchase over-the-counter. As with banding tails, lambs should be protected against tetanus via passive immunity or use of the tetanus anti-toxin at the time of castration.


Surgical castration

The testicles may be surgically removed. With this method, a sharp knife or scalpel is used to remove the bottom one-third of the scrotal sac. The testicles are removed and the wound is allowed to drain and heal naturally. Sometimes, people use their teeth to remove the tiny testicles. It is essential that proper aseptic technique be used when the surgical method of castration is used.

According to research conducted in Great Britain, surgical castration is the most painful method of castration, as lambs surgically castrated have higher amounts of cortisol in their bloodstream as compared to lambs castrated using other methods. Surgical castration also has the greatest potential for infection and fly infestation. Surgical castration should only be done before or after fly season.

Emasculator

A Burdizzo emasculatome is a tool that is used to crush the spermatic cord, which crushes the blood vessels, thus depriving the testicles of blood supply and causing them to shrivel up and die. The Burdizzo does not break the skin. Each cord should be crushed separately. The cattle-size Burdizzo should not be used to castrate lambs. The baby Burdizzo should be used.

Other methods

There is an "All-in-One" tool that can be used to perform surgical castrations. The teeth of the All-in-One tool are used to grab the testicles after cutting off the bottom one third of the scrotum with the scissors portion of the tool. So far, chemical castration has not proven to be effective or practical.

Lambs should be castrated by the time they are twelve weeks of age, regardless of the method used. In the United Kingdom, veterinarians must perform all castrations in ram lambs over 3 months of age. Though banded lambs are most vulnerable, immunity from tetanus is recommended for all castration methods.

Short-scrotum rams

Less pain is associated with making a short scrotum ram versus a wether lamb. It is also easier to do. A short scrotum ram is a ram whose testicles have been pushed up into the body cavity and had its scrotum removed. The band is placed above the testicles. The scrotum will atrophy and fall off. As compared to wether lambs, short scrotum rams grow faster and produce leaner carcasses. Though they still retain their testicles, short scrotum rams are usually infertile, because they lack the thermoregulation necessary for spermatogenesis. For spermatogenesis to occur there must be a several degree temperature difference between the testicles and body.


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Late updated 26-Jan-2019 by Susan Schoenian.
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