January 11, 2009

Sheep Farm Husbandry - training sheep

Sheep, husbandry, behaviour, training a sheep, pet lamb, rearing & training

By Dr Clive Dalton

Training sheep

As discussed earlier, sheep can learn quickly and there are a few tricks you can use to teach them. One of these is to teach a sheep to be a leader ( a Judas) sheep which can be used to lead sheep through any unpopular or unfamiliar places like sheepyards and woolsheds, problem gateways, footbaths, ditches or swamps, onto and off trucks and into slaughter facilities.

In many parts of the world sheep follow the shepherd and are not driven by humans and dogs. This is the ideal system for small flocks in New Zealand as under-worked dogs cause more problem than they are worth. In no time a rattle of a bucket or tin with a few sheep nuts in is all that’s needed. Here are some tips developed by Kay Bremner at Ruakura Research Centre in the 1970s to use if you want to train a leader sheep:

Choosing a sheep to train

  • A pet lamb is the best candidate and will shorten the training period by about a month compared to a flock sheep.
  • Pet lambs are not so afraid of dogs or strange people, and are ideal if you want them to work along with dogs.
  • Also pet lambs will try new feeds which you can use as rewards if they get tired of the main one you are using.
  • But if a pet lamb is not available, any un-handled sheep will do.
  • Any age of sheep will do but obviously avoid very young lambs that are not robust enough to open gates and very old sheep that may nearing the end of their days.
  • Breed is not all that important but an active breed like a Perendale will get the job done quicker.
Step 1 - Initial training
  • Start by frequently restraining the sheep in a narrow race.
  • Then spend some time scratching them on the shoulder – a sheep loves this.
  • After each scratch, hold your hand out to the sheep to let it sniff it.
  • The sheep soon learns that sniffing your hand signals further scratching.
Step 2 - Go away
  • Get the sheep to eat concentrate feed (sheep nuts) so it can be used as a reward for correct actions.
  • Teach the sheep to come when called – using the feed.
  • Teach it to follow on a lead – using the sheep nuts if needed.
  • Then teach the sheep to move away from you using a command. Use a long race or small pen with the feed bucket at the far end.
  • Lead the sheep to the bucket to smell the feed, then take it back and let it go to find the bucket. Repeat this exercise a few times with a simple command like “Go”.
  • Increase the distance between the release point and the bucket.
Step 3 – Go around and come back
  • If you want the sheep to come back on a complete circuit, you can extend the above training, so the sheep comes back to the bucket at the start.
  • Don’t fill the start/end bucket until the sheep gets back to it or it won’t want to leave.
  • Then introduce any diversions or challenges on the way around the circuit like flaps or doors or return races at meat works.
  • Change the situation of the reward bucket at the end of the required route.
  • Always put the bucket at the end of the required route and begin by teaching the last step first, then the second-to-last plus the last.
  • Gradually add steps until the sheep has learned the complete task from first to last steps.
  • Once the sheep is competent and confident at a given task, then use an intermittent reward system. This will establish a stronger behaviour pattern than rewards after every performance.

Step 4 –Final tuning
  • Opening a flap. Start with the flap wide open and slowly close it so the sheep gets used to brushing through till it will put its nose into a very narrow gap and push it open. Use some sheep nuts to speed the learning.
  • Lifting a lever. Hold a few sheep nuts below a lever or above a latch and moving your hand so the sheep, while getting the feed, learns the action required to activate the mechanism. It will soon learn to use its nose to get the result.
  • Check that any flaps or gates you don’t want opened are firmly closed before you put the sheep to work!

Training a pet lamb
Encouraging children to rear a pet lamb and train it for competition is a very rewarding exercise, but you need to be aware of some of the issues before you agree to it. Here are some of them:
  • What is going to happen to the lamb when the competition is over? Have you got a good farm home for it, and if you are going to slaughter it for meat, how is that going to be accepted by the carers? Many people swap their lambs with friends – you can eat a friend’s lamb with a clear conscience but not your own!
  • What are you going to do if the lamb dies? It may be a child’s first experience of death which may be an opportunity or a trauma you may or may not wish to use for educational purposes. Below is how to make sure it stays alive and healthy.
  • Get a good healthy lamb and make sure it has had its mother’s colostrum. If it has not, then don’t take it, as the chances are high that it may die at a few weeks old.
  • Often if it’s an orphan it may be a small twin or triplet and may need extra care in its early days.
  • Don’t overfeed it – and if anything, dilute the proprietary milk powders available rather than make them richer. Plenty of lambs have been reared on diluted cows milk and plenty killed by milk that is too rich.
  • In the first few weeks feed it at least four times a day. Better to have many small feeds than fewer big ones. The more times it’s fed, the greater the opportunities for bonding with the owner.
  • The lamb will start to nibble grass (and garden shrubs) from 2-3 weeks old. Provide plenty of grass and avoid the shrubs as they could be poisonous.
  • Let the lamb’s owner feed it every time so it learns to come to their call. (Motivating the owner can often be a battle!). Let the lamb have to travel further away each time so it will run quickly to a voice call. (This is a major test in competition).
  • Every time you pass the lamb between feeds, call it by name to get it to run to the owner in anticipation of a feed.
  • Teach the lamb to lead from the first week and give it plenty of practice. (This is another main competition test). Teach it to stand still beside the owner too, as part of the leading exercise.
  • Make sure the lamb gets all necessary vaccinations. Ask the farmer if the lamb’s mother will have had a 5-in-1 vaccination. If not the lamb will need vaccinating, so check with the vet.
  • If you want to dock the lamb, do it very early or wait until the competitions are over.
  • Make sure the handler knows the full details of the lamb – e.g. its breed, sex and age as the judge will ask them.
Have plenty of spare bottle teats on hand, and give them a regular tug before feeding the lamb to make sure they have not been bitten half through, or starting to perish. If a lamb swallows a teat, give it 10ml of liquid paraffin twice a day and hope nothing gets stuck!

This material is provided in good faith for information purposes only, and the author does not accept any liability to any person for actions taken as a result of the information or advice (or the use of such information or advice) provided in these pages.

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