Farm Ireland

Thursday 14 December 2017

70pc have inadequate handling facilities


Andrew Kinsella

I had a call recently from a farmer who purchased around 130 store lambs about four weeks previously. A significant proportion was now lame, most likely from scald.

What was he to do? A very basic query, but the real problem was that this farmer did not have any real sheep handling facilities. There were now two alternatives -- to turn up the lambs and apply blue spray or to buy at least one footbath, try to rig it up in the cattle crush and walk all lambs through a treatment solution.

Here was a man who purchased lambs just because there was grass available. No real planning went into the project.

As a result of this call, I contacted a number of people in the industry to determine the proportion of sheep farmers that have adequate handling facilities.

The answers varied from 25-30pc. In other words, only 7,500-9,000 sheep farmers out of a total of around 30,000 in Ireland have decent facilities.

In my view, lameness cannot be controlled without footbathing. I do not know how farmers can weigh and draft lambs, select animals for breeding, dose, vaccinate and apply pour-on or any other routine treatment without a proper race and pens. Granted, some of these can be carried out in a cattle crush but more often than not this involves pallets and baler twine. Handling in such make-do pens is not only hard and difficult, it is often downright unpleasant and results in important tasks being delayed or not getting done at all.

A cattle crush is required before a farmer can secure a herd number. Should the same principle apply to handling facilities and acquiring a flock number? I would even question how farms can be quality assured if they do not have basic handling facilities.


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A Teagasc labour survey, conducted about 10 years ago, showed that sheep farmers with good handling facilities spend 1.25 hours less per ewe annually compared to those with inferior facilities.

This amounts to a labour saving of around one month over the year for a 200-250 ewe flock. I would also suggest that savings in terms of man and animal stress levels were even greater.

Sheep handling facilities are somewhat like sheep breeds, motor cars and tractors. If there was a perfect one everybody would have it. People have individual preferences and book plans do not suit all situations.

The best advice is to visit sheep farms that have good facilities before drawing up any plans. Ideally, these visits should be on days that sheep are being worked on within the units. Make use of these visits to seek out reputable sources of any equipment that needs buying. The quality of the equipment and the service provided by some suppliers is often less than adequate.

Where the unit is sited within the farm requires serious consideration. Making use of an untidy corner may well be a poor start. The site should be suitable for access and loading and near water and possibly a power supply. Access to a slurry tanker is necessary where a dipping bath is incorporated. Locate the unit convenient to the sheep grazing areas -- where it is easy to get sheep in and out.

On very extensive or fragmented farms, a mobile unit may be optimal. If the grazing area is convenient to the farmyard, it may be possible to use existing sheds as holding pens. Within the unit, most tasks can be carried out quicker when working with small groups.

In my experience, the unit should have a concrete floor. Hardcore and gravel become muddy and difficult to clean. This slows down animal movement, increases mud splattering and can result in foot problems and injury. It also means handling wet and dirty sheep when they fall over or are turned up for foot paring. It is particularly important to have a clean area for sheep to stand on after footbathing.

Assuming the layout to be good, the next most important factor is the quality of the workmanship in the construction of the unit. Often, a well-designed gate is hung badly so that it drops and has to be lifted to fasten. Jagged ends can have disastrous consequences.

Sheep quickly become familiar with any unit, but it is often the planning and workmanship that differentiates an excellent unit from a poor one.

Andrew Kinsella is a Wicklow sheep farmer and a former Teagasc sheep specialist

Indo Farming