January 11, 2009

Sheep Farm Husbandry - why keep sheep?

Sheep, husbandry, decisions, why keep sheep, your legal responsibilities

By Dr Clive Dalton

Sheep are very good at dividing people into two distinct groups – those who love sheep and those who hate them. The sheep haters have all heard stories about what sheep can die of, and the work involved in their care so they decide to run cattle instead! So right now you’d better decide which group you want to join using the checklist below. You can’t “half like” sheep and neglect them if you want a successful enterprise.

Points for sheep
  • Sheep can be very likeable animals and are usually non-threatening.
  • They make great companions and can soon learn to eat your kitchen waste.
  • They are small and relatively easy to handle.
  • They suit most properties and will graze steep areas where cattle won’t go or cause erosion.
  • They are ideal animals to graze small areas like orchards or driveways.
  • Their faeces are much more environmentally friendly than cattle.
  • Sheep don’t pug paddocks in wet weather the way cattle do.
  • Pastures grazed by sheep have a denser sward with fewer bare areas where weeds grow as in cattle pastures.
  • A few sheep can keep a family self sufficient in meat and wool.
  • Sheep can easily be integrated and graze with other stock on the farm.
  • Sheep require much less capital to buy and maintain than cattle.
  • The world demand for sheep meat is currently good.

Points against sheep
  • They need to be well looked after if you want good production from them.
  • They need good fences to keep them where you last put them.
  • If you have any number of sheep, you’ll need yards and equipment to handle them.
  • Sheep require shearing at least once a year but the current return from wool is low, and many farmers are concerned that if it keeps dropping, returns won’t cover the shearing and handling costs.
  • Their hooves grow and may need trimming.
  • Sheep on lush pastures need dagging and crutching to keep their rear ends clean and avoid flystrike.
  • Stray dogs, especially near urban areas, are a threat to sheep.
  • Sheep are prone to a long list of diseases if they are neglected.

Your legal responsibilities
If you keep sheep you are bound by the Animal Welfare Act 1999. The details of good practice under this law are set out in a number of animal welfare codes that you should be aware of. They cover sheep farming, animals transported within New Zealand, emergency slaughter of farm livestock, and animals at saleyards (see Appendix 1).

The Five Freedoms
Also under the Animal Welfare Act 1999, the person responsible for the care of an animal is legally bound to provide it with “the Five Freedoms”. These are:
  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom from fear and distress
  • Freedom to express “normal” behaviour

The first four freedoms are all very straightforward and it’s only the fifth one where people start to worry about the definitions of what is “normal” behaviour, especially when you consider what happened when man domesticated sheep and the way we farm them today.

The domestic contract
To really understand the 5th freedom, you have to think of mankind and the sheep writing a contract – what the late Dr Ron Kilgour called “the domestic contract. The sheep cannot negotiate its side of the contract so man has to do it for the sheep as well as his own. So when you look at some of today’s sheep husbandry practices, you may rightly question if the sheep got a fair deal. Think for example about sea transport and feedlotting.

We must constantly be checking and updating this agreement with the sheep to make sure that both man and the sheep end up with a reasonable compromise. It can only ever be a compromise. It’s up to the human to make sure it’s a fair one.

Action on the farm
So on the farm – remember your sheep are legally entitled to the 5 Freedoms and failing to provide these can result in large fines and imprisonment. We really have to take this seriously because as an exporting country, our competitors are watching us all the time, hoping an issue will arise that they can exploit and restrict or stop our trade.

To our “clean and green” image we must now add the word “humane” and show the world that this is our business and not just public relations spin.

Disclaimer 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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