Monday, March 21, 2011

Docking lambs, in March

While home this weekend we helped our neighbors dock lambs. Most commercial sheep producers where I'm from range lamb (their ewes lamb out in pastures, without assistance) later in the year, but this particular neighbor raises registered Rambouillet sheep, and lambs everything in a barn a few months ahead of the commercial producers. As a registered producer, he raises bucks, and sells them primarily to commercial sheep producers. Just like in registered cattle, he keeps track of pedigrees and performance information on his sheep.
This means that docking is done much earlier, and a little differently, than in a commercial operation. I'll try to point out the differences as we go.
The reason we dock (remove the tails) on our sheep is for sanitation and health reasons. If you don't remove the tails, the sheep's feces accumulates on the tail to the point it permanently sticks to it's rear end, and the sheep cannot go to the bathroom (hopefully that makes sense). Then the feces accumulates in the intestine, and the sheep will eventually die from the toxins in it's own feces.
So, this is something we do for the health and well being of our sheep. Yes, it does hurt them for a brief a period of time, but it doesn't hurt a fraction as much as dieing from a buildup up feces in the large intestine.

Here's the setup. The ewes closest to us are the ones that still need to lamb. Everything in the back is what we were working.

We put everything in a smaller pen, and go to work.

The people doing this have the job of packing lambs. You just reach down, grab a little guy, and pack him over to the work area, and that sounds easier than it is. One great thing about docking this time of year is these lambs are considerably smaller than they are when you dock on a commercial operation. This is because on a commercial operation you want to wait until as many ewes have lambed as possible, so you don't have to do this twice. That means the older lambs are big (30-40 lbs). This registered herd lambed in a few weeks, and these lambs probably weighted 15 lbs or less. Since they're all in a barn when they're born, it's not a big deal to dock the later-born animals. It's much harder to go find the later born lambs in a 3,000 acre pasture and dock them. It was also a wonderful 45 degrees on this day, as opposed to the over 90 degrees that typically accompanies the later dockings.

Before you reach the work area, you grab the lambs feet like this. You do this because when you reach the working area, everything they need to reach is easily accessible, and the lambs can't kick them.

Here's how it looks. The working area was a panel this day, and works much like an assembly line. You just work your way down the line as the lamb is given a couple shots and docked.
In commercial operations this whole process is done outside, and the working area is usually a long panel, often with a board on top to set the lambs on. There might be two or three people doing each job to help things go faster, and if you're packing lambs you just start at one end, work to the other, set one lamb down and go get another one.
It's all done in a fast, efficient manner, and at some places we'll dock 1,500+ lambs a day, with a crew of about 10-12 people.

Here's how it looked this day. The first stop is for a sore mouth vaccine, then the lamb is given a shot, and a heavy duty rubber band is put on its tail, so a shorter assembly line than in commercial operations, but each step is still critical.

The sore mouth vaccine needs to get in the lambs blood system. So, at the first stop, the inside of the lamb's rear leg is gently scrapped with a knife. Then a little brush is dipped in the vaccine, and rubbed over the area that was scraped with the knife. You can see the little vile of vaccine in the picture before this one.
When we had sheep, we would dip a a screwdriver with a sharpened point in the vaccine, then just poke it through the lambs ear. There are multiple ways to do this, as with many jobs in ag.

From there you move the lamb down to the next station, where it's given a shot. A number of health-related management practices are done to these lambs at the same time. It wouldn't make sense to dock them one day, then get them back in just to give them shots a week later.

After the shots, the lambs are docked. This is done two different ways where I'm from. The first is with this tool, called a bander. A heavy-duty, green rubber band is put on the bander like this...

Then you can squeeze the handle, and it will stretch the rubber band out, so you can slide it over the tail. Then you release the handle, and the band squeezes the tail, and cuts off the blood supply to the tail. After a few days the tail will fall off. You want to be careful with this method because as the tail is getting ready to fall off, fly's can lay eggs in the area where the rubber band is, and cause serious problems. But, it's still too early for flys right now, so there was no concern over that. You also place the rubber band at a specific point on the tale. Too short and the sheep may prolapse, too long and you may not eliminate the problem of tails sticking to rear ends.
The other method people use is to just cut the tail off with a sharp knife. This method is faster, and results in less discomfort for the lambs in the long run. It's just a personal decision made each year on each operation.

Here the lambs tail is being grabbed, and the rubber band being put on. Another difference between this and a commercial docking is we didn't castrate any of the male lambs, since this producer raises bucks.
In a commercial operation, buck lambs are either cut with a knife, or another rubber band would be out around the testicles, with great care taken to not include any of the teats in the area squeezed off by the rubber band.
The castrating process would be another step in the assembly line.

Then you just lean over and drop the lamb on the ground. Since these are shed lambed, they were already branded. On a commercial operation you would continue to move down the assembly line, where ewe lambs may be earmarked, and the last step is branding. Sheep producers use paint brands, and when you reach this step you would twist the lamb around, and the brand would be applied to his back, then you would set him down. Neighbors try to use different colors of paint, because as time goes by it becomes harder to read the actual brand, and the different colors are the easiest way to distinguish ownership. Sheep are branded each year, because when you shear them, you lose the wool that the brand was on.

Then they're done. As I said, this does cause some discomfort for a few hours, but is nowhere near the pain that could result from not docking them. After the blood flow is cut off from the tail, the lambs are fine. In a few weeks their tails will just fall off, with them none the wiser, and they'll be able to relieve themselves for the rest of their lives without issue.

Then the ewes are counted out. You will also count the number of lambs you docked, and when you're all done you can figure your lambing crop.

Sheep pair up amazingly well, and in a couple minutes everyone has their lamb, and they are turned back out in a lot.

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