Body condition scoring in a chute
Automatic tilt table
Deworming in a chute
Holding a ram
(image from Pipedream Farm)
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.
Body condition scoring
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.
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
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.
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.
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
How to tip
- Stand to the side of the sheep.
- Hold the sheep's head in your left hand by placing
your hand under its jaw.
- Your left knee should be near or just behind the sheep's
- Your right leg should be touching the sheep's side
near its left hip.
- Place your right hand on the sheep's back over the
- Turn the sheep's nose away from you towards its shoulder.
- You should feel the weight of the sheep lean against
- Put pressure on the hips with your right hand so the
sheep cannot pick its back feet off the floor.
- Take a step back with your right leg.
- The hind leg of the sheep should start to go down.
- 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
<== SHEEP 201 INDEX