Control What You Can – Tips to Manage Stress in Sheep

We have probably all heard that sheep are hard to raise because they are always “looking for ways to die”. While there is some merit to that line of thinking, taking the time to control the things that you can control can greatly reduce the incidence of illness and injury, thus increasing your efficiency and bottom line. Most creatures are negatively impacted by stress, and sheep are no exception. Important concepts to remember when raising sheep are:

Handling and Environment
All for one – sheep are most at ease in a group, and easily become upset when they are separated from their flock. The stress can cause a panic which turns into frantic behavior that can result in accidents and injuries.

Memory – bad experiences stay with sheep. Early experiences of stress imprint on their brains. Low stress handling procedures paired with facilities designed with sheep behavior in mind will mitigate the probability of adverse experiences that form stress reactions that can last a lifetime.

Handle with care – sheep wool is not meant to be a handle and grabbing it to move them can cause the animals pain and bruising. The proper use of facilities and methods of transport will also help prevent stress and other issues.

Transporting – relocating a flock should only be done by an experienced, reputable livestock trucker.

Producers should participate in the process to ensure that overcrowding is avoided and sick or injured animals are moved separately. It may also be necessary to stop and check that piling is not occurring in the trailer. Cameras in trailers are excellent resources.

Avoidance – sheep characteristically tend to move away from a person who gets too close to them by entering their “flight zone.” By calmly entering their “flight zone,” you can often motivate them to move away from you and toward a pre-determined opening.

Wide angle vision – remember that sheep have the ability to see behind themselves, making turning their heads unnecessary. Even if you or the dogs are behind them, they can still see movement. Therefore, any aggressive actions should be avoided.

Lighting – just as sheep tend to move away from people, they will move toward light. This makes the lighting in any facility important. Ever watched a sheep jump a shadow? Remember that shadowing can make movement and handling difficult.

Noise – sounds are a sensitive subject for sheep. Quiet handling is important to keep them calm.

Dogs – dogs are a great tool when working sheep. Try to operate calmly though (we know it can be difficult sometimes)!

Environmental Conditions – the quality of the area where the sheep live has a direct impact on their health and wellbeing. Housing and handling facilities designed specifically for sheep help them move about freely and offer them protection. Proper airflow helps prevent pneumonia and other disease. Be careful to avoid putting off regular facility and equipment inspections that can reveal hazards and areas of concern before they evolve into production issues.

Biosecurity – visitors can negatively impact an operation. Set limits on the number of visitors entering your facilities and require livestock trucks to be cleaned prior to loading animals from your flock. Be vigilant in regularly monitoring livestock for disease and other issues. New animals should be isolated from the rest of the flock for at least four weeks after arrival.

Nutrition and Health
Addressing the nutrition and health needs of the herd can mean healthier animals who are better equipped to resist infections, more efficiency in lamb growth, and fewer condemnations from carcasses.
• Meet nutritional requirements and purposefully manage feedstuffs.
• Feed, water, and handling equipment should be kept clean.
• Follow manufacturer and veterinary recommendations when administering medications and products.
• Control internal and external parasites, including coccidia that cause coccidiosis. It is important to note that lambs are more susceptible to parasites than adult sheep.

Pregnancy and Weaning
• Pregnancy – Gestation is a pivotal time to an operation, thus ensuring minimal stress on ewes is essential.
• Handle them as little as possible.
• Do not utilize dogs to move them.
• Minimize visitors and the number of different people completing daily chores.

Weaning – Ewes
• Ewes should be transitioned to a diet of lower quality roughage without grain for a week to ten days before weaning.
• Following weaning, continue providing lower quality roughage and avoid handling for about two weeks.
• Provide a clean, comfortable space for the ewes to rest.

Weaning – Lambs
• Vaccinations should be completed at least ten days prior to weaning.
• Move the ewes and leave the lambs – familiar surroundings help reduce weaning stress.
• Ewes should be kept out of sight and earshot from lambs.
• Don’t work lambs for a week.
• Continue providing creep and transition diet gradually after one week post weaning.

Shearing – shearing is traditionally done at least a month prior to lambing. Remove feed for at least 6 hours but preferably 12 hours (and no longer than 20-24 hours off feed) to minimize discomfort during shearing. If shearing in the winter, sheep will require additional feed to counteract cold temperatures.