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sheep farm

Animal Behaviour and Stockmanship

in 2018/Livestock/Spring 2018

Or: How to Never Have to Chase Sheep in Circles Around a Paddock Ever Again!

Sara Sutherland

Many people believe that sheep are stupid. Even people who have never worked with sheep tend to think that sheep are stupid. Broadly speaking, there are two categories of things that sheep do that make people think they are stupid. Firstly, sheep mob together, follow each other, follow the bellwether up the steps to the slaughterhouse, and generally show a lack of independent thought. Secondly, sheep scatter, run the wrong way, get out of fences, and when you get almost all the sheep into the pen and close the gate one will inevitably spin around and run out just before you get the gate closed. (If you think about it, this isn’t fair—dumb if you do and dumb if you don’t!)

When you work closely with sheep, you begin to realize that they also show signs of intelligence. Sheep will watch when you fix a hole in the fence, then go and check if it’s really fixed. Sheep will teach each other to get into a feeder that is supposed to only let lambs eat. A researcher in the UK, Keith Kendrick, studied facial recognition in sheep. Sheep would push the button beside the photograph of a sheep they knew, a flockmate, instead of a sheep they didn’t know. They could recognize over 30 individuals, and remember for at least three years after the last time they had seen the animal in the photograph!

So if sheep are so intelligent, if they have this capacity for recognition and learning and memory, why do they do stupid things?

Sheep don’t have a lot of natural defences. They don’t have sharp teeth, they don’t have long fangs, they don’t shoot lasers from their eyes (fortunately). Because they are prey animals, they are highly motivated to avoid being eaten. The most dominant sheep in a flock is not the leader, the most dominant sheep is in the middle where it is safest. When there is a group of animals of similar size running past each other, it is very difficult for the predator to focus on one individual. If you have ever tried to catch an individual sheep out of a flock, you know that you really need to stay focused on one individual in order to be successful. Statistically, a sheep in a flock of twelve is less likely to be eaten than a sheep in a flock of three. So sticking together, circling, and following each other are not caused by stupidity. In fact, they show a sophisticated understanding of statistics!

What about when sheep scatter and run the wrong way? Every animal has a “personal space bubble” or “flight zone”. When you step into their flight zone, they move away. The size of the flight zone varies. The biggest factor affecting the size of the flight zone is habituation—how used to you the animals are. To reduce the size of the flight zone, habituate your sheep to your presence. They are intelligent enough that if you walk through their paddock regularly they will recognize you and become gradually less wary of you. If you step into their flight zone behind their shoulder, they will move forwards, in front of their shoulder they will stop or turn around. Always be aware of where you are in relation to the animal. Why does one sheep spin around and run away from the flock when you go to shut the gate? She is motivated to be close to the other sheep until you step into her flight zone, then she is highly motivated to gap it. So take your time, let them all move into the pen, then watch the outside sheep and move into her flight zone behind her shoulder as you slowly shut the gate.

There are between breed and within breed variations in the size of the flight zone. There are no naturally “bad” breeds though—animals of any breed will habituate with regular calm handling. Animals that are stressed or in pain will have a larger flight zone. You should keep this in mind and not expect them to react the same way they normally do when something is wrong. Sheep in a smaller group will be more reactive than sheep in a larger group. They type of stimulus will also affect the size of the flight zone. The most effective stimulus for getting sheep to move is something that is novel—something that they haven’t been exposed to before. It doesn’t need to be especially loud or annoying, even a plastic bag on the end of a stick works well until they get used to it.

If animals get really stressed, it takes them a period of time to go back to behaving normally. Think about the last time you had a near miss in traffic, and how long it took for your heart rate to go back to normal! So if things really turn to custard, walk away and let them relax and come back 20-30 minutes later (providing it is safe to do so).

Unlike dogs, sheep predominantly use vision to experience their environment. Sheep do see differently than we do. They see things moving on the horizon better than we do, but large things close-up not as well. They see greens and yellows better than we do, but reds and blues not as well (so don’t use them to help you chose your wallpaper). They see vertical bars on a gate better than horizontal ones—if your sheep keep banging into the gate maybe they don’t see it well.

You can tell it’s a Perendale because of the short little ears and because it’s on the wrong side of the fence

When you are designing handling facilities for sheep and cattle, whether it is a set of pens and races or just a couple of gates in the corner of the paddock, use these principles to make it easy for the animals to do what you want them to do. Set it up so that they can circle and stay close together. Make sure they can see where they are going; for example, make sure that you are not running a race into a blank wall. When you are moving animals, use their flight zone and balance point. Don’t chase them around in circles—you will only make them stressed. Habituate them to a handling facility by running them into it a couple of times before you do anything stressful or painful to them in there. Look through a race from the sheep or cow’s eye level to try and spot anything likely to make them baulk as they run through. Sudden changes from light to dark, shadows, reflections, and hanging flappy things are common issues that we might not notice that make sheep or cattle not want to run.

Why is this important? Firstly, if you are set up to use the animal’s natural behaviours instead of working against them you will get the job done more quickly. Secondly, you will get the job done more safely. People can get injured by sheep and cattle, and if you are stressed because you aren’t well set up to handle animals you are more likely to do something dangerous like roll the motorbike or tell your partner you don’t like their cooking. Thirdly, stress makes animals more likely to get diseases. So if you are set up to work with the animal’s natural behaviour instead of against it, you will find your animals are healthier, you are safer, the work is done more quickly and more easily, and you might find that actually sheep aren’t as stupid as you thought!

Sara Sutherland is a large animal vet in the North Island of New Zealand, specializing in sheep. She’s from a large family farm in Quebec with meat and dairy sheep, and currently not only provides vet services for farms from 20-2,000 head of sheep but also conducts research and hosts workshops on management for farms in the region.

Photos: Sara Sutherland

Wild & Woolly at Robson Valley Sheep Farm

in Farmer Focus/Livestock/Organic Stories
Hani Grasser looks out over his sheep at Robson Valley Sheep Farm

Marjorie Harris

Raising Sheep Demands Constant Vigilance

Not far from McBride, BC, nestled in the beautiful Robson Valley bottom land that frames the Fraser River, is a wilderness paradise known as the Robson Valley Sheep Farm. Owned and operated by Theres and Hani Gasser, the certified organic farm is dedicated to raising high quality meat sheep, who share the land with a few dozen Angus beef cows, a few riding horses and some poultry for home use. Like most paradises, the Robson Valley Sheep Farm’s idyllic appearance is the result of careful planning, good management, and lots of hard work.

The Swiss Family Robson

Hani and Theres, along with their three little children, came to BC from Switzerland in 1988. Hani was fresh out of a four-year training program from a Swiss agricultural college, which included two years of hands–on apprenticeship and two years of classroom study. Hani had taken extra courses in organic farming, and was eager to put his knowledge to work in his new country.

After spending their first four years in Canada managing a biodynamic beef operation near Chase, BC, in 1992 the Gassers were ready to take the leap into farming for themselves. They bought land in Chase and for the next 14 years they very successfully ran the well known certified organic Mountain Meadow Sheep Dairy, producing sheep milk cheeses and yogurt.

Then, in the fall of 2006, the Gasser took an even bigger leap: they moved north to McBride, onto 535 acres of beautifully forested wilderness in the Robson Valley. Situated on a big bend of the Fraser River, their new domain came complete with an oxbow lake, a full mile of river frontage and a large acreage of fertile wetland full of local and migrating birds, which the Gassers now maintain as a bird sanctuary.

What the property did not include was livable space for the Gassers. The farm hadn’t been occupied for over a quarter of a century, and Hani and Theres’ first project was to change the large equipment shop into a dual service timberframe home and shop. Using their own pine beetle killed timber, the couple spent several years doing all of the renovations themselves.

A Hardy Herd for a Northern Climate

The sheep on the Robson Valley farm are a variety of mixed breeds, resulting in a robust and healthy herd that can tolerate the cold winters and thrive in the wilderness environment. The Gassers brought their original dairy herd north with them, and since then have crossed the sheep with breeds that can lamb out at one year old, successfully mother the first time with a single lamb and then mature into an ewe that gives twins, while living on grass and hay alone. The Robson Valley sheep do not receive any grain. The size of the flock each year varies from about 100 to 300 mother sheep depending on the amount of hay produced by the start of winterfeeding. The sheep live outdoors all year round except during lambing, when the ewes are moved close to the house into the lambing barns where they can be checked every three hours.

Lamb at Robson Valley Sheep Farm

Since sheep and parasites love each other, parasite prevention dictates the rotational grazing schedule for the Robson Valley flock. The Gassers are careful to rotate their sheep out of a pasture ahead of the parasites’ maturation cycle. This means moving the sheep every week, or at the very longest, before 14 days. Thanks to electric fencing, the paddocks are kept small enough so that the sheep can be moved easily.

This rotational grazing pattern mimics natural ruminant behaviour of grazing the valley bottoms in the spring and winter and moving up to fresh mountain pastures during summer and autumn.

This rotational grazing pattern mimics natural ruminant behaviour of grazing the valley bottoms in the spring and winter and moving up to fresh mountain pastures during summer and autumn. The Gassers also practice multi-species grazing, keeping cows and horses in the pasture along with the sheep. Combined with regular haying, the practices help to prevent the sheep from grazing in the same paddock more than once a year.

Inevitably though, occasionally a parasite appears. Whenever the Gassers detect evidence of parasites in one of the sheep, they are quick to administer their custom-order herbal de-wormer. The de-wormer, developed by the Gassers themselves with assistance from the staff at Urban Spice in Vancouver, contains wormwood, fennel seed and gentian. The Gassers’ have now started growing their own wormwood to ensure a ready supply of this key ingredient.

A Machine-Free Farming Lifestyle

Since neither Hani nor Theres enjoy doing mechanical repairs, they have reduced their reliance on farming equipment down to haying and fencing machines. When the pastures are in need of reseeding with red and white clover, timothy and orchard grasses, the Gassers simply hand broadcast the seed into a pasture just before the sheep flock is moved in, and rely on the sheep to trample the seed into the earth.

Alternatively, in the summer they add seeds to the cattle salts and let the cows do the work of spreading them — with organic fertilizer included for free! While these methods are slower than working the soil with equipment, the Gassers find them simpler, much less expensive, and less work-intensive. Currently their biggest problem in pasture maintenance is the encroaching advance of hawkweed and foxtail barley. Hani and Theres would love to hear from other farmers with suggestions for combating these weeds.

Because sheep require a diet much higher in protein than beef cattle do, growing, growing high-quality hay is crucial to sheep herd health, Hani explains. This is partly due to the fact that a cow weans a calf when it only about half the weight of its mother and a ewe weaning twin lambs has to raise nearly double her own weight.

That need for protein can make sheep fussy eaters, and very talented at nibbling off all the leaves and discarding the rough stems of the hay. And that can lead to a lot of wastage, so the Gassers have solved the problem with winterfeed by allowing only their sheep into a pasture to feed on a new hay bale first. When the sheep have finished picking over the bale, the following day the cows are brought in to clean up the leftovers. This method leaves very little waste and helps keep the Gassers’ collies busy herding all winter long too.

Doggy Defenders

Because of intense predator pressures in this neck of the woods, very good livestock guard dogs are required to be on duty at all times. Two or three Akbash or Akbash-crossed dogs (preferably Comondor) live with the flock all year long. The dogs are with the flock 24/7 — except when a female is in a ‘standing heat’ and needs to be temporarily kenneled.

The critical trick to developing a excellent sheep guard is that between its 6th and 10th week of age, the puppy must bond with livestock.

Thanks to the watchfulness of their guard dogs the Gassers lose very few animals. In fact, in the last nine years they report they have lost only 5 ewes — to an attack by a pack of wolves. The secret to their success? According to the Gassers, the critical trick to developing a excellent sheep guard is that between its 6th and 10th week of age, the puppy must bond with livestock. And they’re careful not to make pets of the dogs. As Hani says, “A livestock guard dog has no business in your yard, in a kennel, or on your porch. And it should only be fed and receive affectionate petting when by the flock. We are the Alpha dog to our guard dog pack and they come when called.”

Where the Akbash specialize in guarding the sheep flock, the Gassers use Border Collies and one New Zealand Huntaway to herd the sheep from pasture to pasture. Theres and Hani love to train and work with their guard and herding dogs and occasionally sell puppies.

If you would like more information on sheep farming, Hani and Theres are happy to share their ideas, opinions, and their years of experience and wisdom on shepherding. You can reach them through their website: www.sheephappens.ca

Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA V.O., P. Ag. Email: marjorieharris@telus.net 

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – attributed to Hippocrates

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