Stupid is as stupid does, says veteran shepherd

Stress-free approach is key to flock – and shepherd – longevity

Raising sheep is seen by many as the easiest and cheapest way to get started in the livestock business, but anecdotal evidence suggests that most newbie shepherds give up within five years.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not due to poor economics, said Gord Schroeder, member relations manager for the fledgling Canadian Lamb Co-op.

“The No. 1 reason people give for getting out of sheep is ‘those stupid sheep,’” he said, in a recent presentation on sheep behaviour hosted by the Manitoba Sheep Association.

Many acreage owners who may or may not have any experience with livestock, are seeking some way to turn a few acres of grass into cash, and look to sheep as a small, docile animal that is easily handled and managed.

“Easy entry, easy out,” said Schroeder, former chair of the Saskatchewan Sheep Development boards and a shepherd for 28 years.

On paper at least, the economics look attractive because six ewes can be raised on the same land base as one cow.

“But if you go out and buy 60 sheep, that’s like 10 cows. So how much money are you going to make with 10 cows?”

A would-be shepherd who starts off with 50 ewes, for example, and then adds a tractor, baler and handling shed may quickly find that the lamb crop can’t provide cash flow to support his capital outlay, he added.

Schroeder places sheep intelligence on par with cattle, but below a pig. A strong herding instinct suggests witless conformity, but if behaviour is an animal’s response to its environment, then the human role in shaping it cannot be ignored.

Key to understanding sheep, or horses or cattle for that matter, he adds, is the fact that as prey animals, their eyes are placed far apart on their head. Depth perception, therefore, has been traded off for wide peripheral vision in excess of 270 degrees, and anything unusual or unfamiliar that appears within their field of vision triggers the instinct to flee.

Shadows, sharp contrasts, uneven floor surfaces – or even a coat hanging on a wall – can create uncertainty and hesitation that will interrupt the flow of sheep through a chute, said Schroeder.

Their hearing is acute, which means that shouting is a waste of breath, and could cause them to “freeze.” To encourage movement, he shakes a broomstick with a plastic bag stapled on the end to make a soft, rustling noise.

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Handling facilities don’t have to cost thousands of dollars, but they need to be well thought out to match the flock’s tendency to avoid dead ends, puddles or light-to-dark changes. Staging a practice run through it from time to time where no needling is done to the flock can help alleviate their anxiety, he added.

Sheep bunch up at corners, so gentle curves are better. Uphill movement is always easier than downhill, and wherever stress is created, sheep need to be enclosed by solid wall panels. Where long, straight runs are necessary, having a decoy sheep at the front of the chute gives them more confidence to move forward.

“They love routine. They balk at change,” said Schroeder. If something that worked yesterday doesn’t work today, that’s a dead giveaway that something has changed and a good, careful shepherd will take the time to figure out what it is and remove it.

Handling facilities are an investment, not a cost, because they can make or break a sheep operation. Having a good design means that vaccinations, deworming and body condition scoring ahead of lambing are more likely to be done in a timely fashion.

Successful shepherds will take the time to observe their sheep’s behaviour and regard the operation as a “working partnership” that must accommodate the needs of both parties.

“Stress is not good for man or beast. So if you feel stressed, you can bet they will feel stressed, too,” said Schroeder.

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