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Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Sheep Handling Facilities
by Richard Cobb

Within the past ten years a great interest in sheep handling facilities has developed in this country. I feel that this is due to the realization that as we increase the numbers and/or the size of the sheep we work with, it becomes increasingly important that we do so in as efficient a manner as possible and with a minimum of physical labor. We all can appreciate the physically demanding and exhausting work involved with sorting, weighing, worming, pregnancy checking, etc., a number of sheep. A good working or handling facility whether permanent or temporary, or portable can reduce the physical demands of these jobs to a very manageable level.

Handling facilities have been in existence for centuries in countries with sheep populations and have been sophisticated to a remarkable degree. We, however, are more concerned with the "basic" requirements for a successful facility or yard and will concern ourselves in this area.

In simple terms, a yard is needed where sheep can be stored for short periods and then moved easily and quickly to a work area where they can be separated into different groups and handled individually. Based on this idea, it is probable that no one design is best for all farms. This is because the yards must be fitted to the operator, his sheep and the operations performed on the sheep, and area available for the yards to be constructed.

The sheep yard is divided into the following parts:

  1. Storage area. The size will be determined by the number of sheep that are normally handled as a group. For instance, a 300-ewe flock would require a larger storage area than a ewe flock having just 100 ewes.
  2. Drafting chute or race. The sheep move from the storage area single file into the drafting chute. This allows the operator to identify the sheep and separate whichever sheep he wants. An excellent example of the use of this chute is to sort ewes into breeding groups. The ewes come into the chute, single file, are identified by ear tag number or paint brand, and then sorted by use of a drafting gate at the end of the chute into tow or three different groups. This can be done by one person, if necessary.

Sheep yards should be designed with the sheep in mind. Success or failure in getting sheep to flow through the pens with minimum effort for both sheep and shepherd is related to basic principles which should be remembered.

  1. Sheep will follow one another.
  2. Sheep prefer to move uphill or up a slight incline vs. downhill.
  3. Sheep flow better around slight corners or curves.
  4. Sheep will move away from things that frighten them.
  5. Sheep will move toward another sheep or friend.
  6. Sheep do not like to walk into the sun.

Sheep do all of these things by instinct and therefore these principles should be fully exploited in the design of sheep handling facilities. Other factors to be considered in the selection of a site for a working facility are:

  1. It should be centrally located to the sheep population.
  2. It should be free draining.
  3. It should be shaded.
  4. The chute should run north and south (not east and west) to avoid sheep moving into the sun.
  5. It should be convenient for loading and access.

Factors to observe in the facility layouts and construction:

  1. Pens should be no larger than necessary.
  2. Obstructions and sharp edges should be avoided.
  3. Rails or sheeting should be on the inside.
  4. All surfaces should be smooth and timber splinter free.
  5. Gates and catches should be easily operated.
  6. The basic layout should be as simple as possible.

The sorting race is of utmost importance and should conform to the following specifications:

  1. Narrow enough to present sheep singly. (Ideal width from 14 inches for small breeds up to 20 inches for larger breeds.)
  2. Long enough and permitting an unobstructed view to identify sheep well in advance. (Fifteen to twenty feet is a good length.)
  3. Sides should be smooth and free of projections.
  4. Sorting gates must present a clear view ahead to the oncoming sheep.
  5. Both entry and exit must conform to the principles of sheep psychology.
  6. Position of operator must not deter sheep.
  7. Height of the chute should not interfere with working. (A good height is 36 inches.)

Sheep working facilities add a new dimension to sheep production. Used correctly, they can add to the efficiency of your total operation. A working chute or race can be used to drench, pregnancy test, and sort or allot ewes into breeding bands. A working chute brings the sheep to you, one at a time, single file, so that you can check their teeth, udders, etc. If necessary, you can trim or shear around their eyes, check ear tags and/or replace ear tags. You can also paint brand, trim feet, and at the end of the day still have enough energy left over to enjoy yourself that evening.

Two excellent publications to consult for more information on sheep handling facilities are:

Sheep Handbook, Housing and Equipment — published by Midwest Plan Service, Iowa State University, Ames Iowa, 50010 and available at you state university sheep extension office.

Farm Buildings Information Center, #16 — a British booklet and available from U.K. Products, Washington, Iowa.

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