Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Make it easy to handle

With a multitude of tasks to take care of, the sheep farmer needs a proper handling unit

Tagging is one of the many tasks to be performed
Tagging is one of the many tasks to be performed
A proper race allows for comfortable access to the sheep
Mobile handling units are gaining in popularity

Michael Gottstein

An effective handling unit is an essential piece of equipment for every serious sheep farmer.

If we look at all the tasks that have to be carried out, a typical sheep farm could end up having to handle sheep as follows:

  • April: First worm dose and footbath
  • May: Second worm dose and footbath
  • June: Weaning or drafting lambs from ewes, weighing lambs, drafting first lambs for slaughter, worm dose lambs, footbath, draft off replacement ewe lambs, fly strike prevention
  • July: Weigh, draft lambs, footbath, draft off cull ewes, segregate ewes according to body condition
  • August: Weigh, draft lambs, worm dose, footbath, prepare rams for mating season
  • September: Weigh, draft lambs, worm dose, footbath, footbath ewes, treat lame ewes
  • October: Weigh, draft lambs, footbath and routine health care of breeding sheep before ram turnout
  • November: Weigh, draft lambs
  • December - March: Routine healthcare before and during housing.

In a nutshell, it means that the sheep will have to be handled, treated, drafted or weighed about 30 times a year. On farms where the entire holding is in one block, a permanent handling unit that is centrally located to the grazing area is the best option. However, most drystock farms are fragmented and this is where a mobile handling facility comes to the fore.

But what is an effective handling unit? When I was a teenager I spent some time working on sheep farms where sheep were driven into an old house or a pen made of pallets in a corner of the field. The operator then waded through the sheep, wrestling with them to dose them, then they had to be marked with a marker pen so they wouldn't end up being dosed a second time before moving to the next sheep.

Drafting involved having to physically drag each sheep out of the pen and as foot-bathing was non-existent, paring and numerous tins of blue antibiotic spray were used. Needless to say, this type of activity is time-consuming, stressful for both man and beast and, in terms of foot care, not at all effective.


An effective handling unit should have:

1) Collecting pen or yard -- This should be big enough to hold the maximum number of sheep that the farm runs in one flock. Allow 0.35m per lowland ewe (add 30pc per lamb).

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2) Race -- The race should be sufficiently long so that you don't spend more time filling it than you spend treating the sheep. I would suggest that six metres in length should be the minimum considered. Having the sides of the race solid is important to aid sheep movement through the race.

3) Drafting gate -- At the end of the race there should be a drafting gate which allows selected sheep to be removed from the main flock. Ideally this drafting gate should be such that when it is left in the mid position it closes the front of the race. Some drafting systems operate using a guillotine gate and a single swinging drafting gate which means the operator must use both hands to control the guillotine gate and the drafting gate, leaving no hand free to push on reluctant sheep.

4) Drafting pens -- Having drafted the sheep it is important that they stay separated so adequate penning is required at the front of the race.

5) Footbath -- My preference would be for a batch footbath, but in mobile units these can be difficult to move around. A walk-through footbath should be at least six metres long to allow for sufficient contact time between the solution and the sheep's feet.

6) Standing area -- A clean and dry area (hardcore or concrete) for the sheep to stand on after being put through the footbath.

7) Weighing scales -- Scales are important not only when drafting lambs, but also essential during the year when sheep are being dosed for worms or fluke and the operator needs to establish the appropriate dose rate. For this reason, the scales should be large enough to weigh mature ewes. Some scales are not wide enough to allow large lowland ewes entry -- check this before you purchase. The scales should be at least 40cm (16 inches) wide.

8) Rollover crate -- While routine foot paring of the entire flock is not recommended, it is a good idea to have a rollover crate on farms where breed types have resulted in sheep with large mature size. The race should be designed in such a way that it can incorporate the rollover crate when needed but it should not form a permanent part of the race.

Indo Farming