Grandin: Proper sheep handling is not only beneficial but moral responsibility
“Calm, low stress handling of sheep is easy to do if we understand behavioral principles,” said Temple Grandin, renowned animal behavioral expert and professor of animal science for Colorado State University.
Grandin created a three-part video series with the American Sheep Industry Association and the Livestock Marketing Association addressing the importance of low stress handling of sheep and practices that handlers can easily implement to improve their handling practices.
Grandin stressed that proper animal handling is the responsibility of all individuals that handle sheep.
“Everybody who works with sheep – ranchers, feedlots, truckers, shearers, livestock markets and meat packing plants – has the responsibility to do good handling and maintain good animal welfare,” she said.
First and foremost, the responsibility is due to the morality of animal handling.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility to handle animals with good animal welfare because it’s the right thing to do,” she explained.
Grandin also noted that public perception is another important element that demands handlers use proper handling techniques.
“We must remember, the public is out there watching. We need to be thinking about what we’re doing,” Grandin said. “What would it look like if it were posted online?”
Grandin explained that it is important to remember that sheep have wide-angle vision when determining what practices to use when handling animals.
“They’re a prey species animal, and their vision is designed so when they’re grazing they can look all the way around for predators,” she said.
However, animals that have long wool around their eyes, or are wool blind, will have limited wide-angle vision
“This is unless they have very long wool around the eyes, which is called wool blind. If they’re shorn, they can see all the way around,” explained Grandin.
When handlers stay within the animal’s visual field, the sheep will either move forward or at an angle.
To work with their natural vision, Grandin suggested using solid crowd gates and solid side barriers.
“Crowd gates closed behind the sheep, as well as the sides of the barriers leading to the gate, should be solid, whereas gates in the direction sheep are moving should allow the sheep to see where they are moving,” explained the narrator in the video series.
“The flight zone of the animal is kind of their personal space,” said Grandin. “If we have an animal that’s been out on the plains or pasture that’s very extensive, they’ll have a huge flight zone. We’ll just get 50 to 100 feet from them, and they’ll run away. Then, we can have a completely tame 4-H lamb that we can stroke and lead around.”
Multiple factors affect the size of an animal’s flight zone, explained Grandin.
“There are different factors that affect the size of the flight zone. They are genetics – genetically flightier animals have a bigger flight zone, the amount of contact with people and the quality of that contact,” she said.
All sheep will maintain an individual zone of comfort or security. When handlers apply pressure to the flight zone, the animal will typically move.
The narrator explained that the size of the enclosure the sheep are located in also affects the size of the flight zone.
“Sheep confined in a narrow alley will have a more narrow flight zone than sheep confined in a larger area,” continued the narrator.
Grandin recommended using dogs only in large areas where sheep can move away, as well as using solid-sided panels to encourage animals to move forward through chutes, loading ramps and crowding pens.
It is important for sheep handlers to be able to recognize how to use the natural behaviors of sheep to their advantage to move animals humanely.
“People need to learn to interpret and use those natural behaviors to help them to handle sheep,” said Grandin.
An example of using natural behavior is walking in the opposite direction of desired movement.
“As we pass the shoulder of each sheep, they tend to go forward,” she explained.
Handlers can utilize the strong flocking instinct of sheep and their desire to follow a leader to efficiently move animals.
“Lead sheep in a pen that are walked through a chute can be used to lure sheep through a working facility. This is especially recommended when approaching sheep are unable to see previously sorted sheep,” explained the narrator.
A lead sheep can be trained to move through a chute and open an escape gate to return to the crowding pen to lead another group of animals.
Grandin recommended positioning sheep corrals so sheep go through the system following the same route for multiple procedures.
“Sheep will move more easily through a corral if they have followed the route before,” explained the narrator.
Orienting working parts of the system, such as the sorting chute, toward the “home” pasture or another large lot encourages sheep to move more easily as they are moving toward the area they came from.
Grandin stressed that it is important not to locate the sorting chute or pen exits toward a building because sheep may balk if they do not see a clear route to escape pressure.
Emilee Gibb is editor of Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.