Do more for your sheep ……. And they will do more for you!

Gareth Bath, Chair LWCC

“Going the extra mile” is based on a biblical phrase (Matthew) that urges us to do more than just the bare minimum.  This is as true of caring for sheep as it is for everything else of value.  How often have we heard the sage advice from a farmer after a lifetime that is crowned with success, in spite of every obstacle: “Look after your sheep, and they will look after you”. But what does going the extra mile mean for sheep flocks?  By doing nothing, we can only expect nothing, and by doing the minimum we will not get much more, other than perhaps staying out of trouble.  Consumers of wool, meat and other products definitely expect care that exceeds the bare minimum.  Animals that are well cared for will repay this kindness.  Are we proud of the way our animals are handled, fed and bred?  Can we show everything that we do on the farm to our town cousins without feeling apologetic or defensive?  Most farmers are proud of their livestock and try to do the right things, so what can be done to go that extra mile?


Are the kraals and crushes safe, is water available, is there any shade, is there good flooring or does it become a mud bath after rain?  None of these will kill the sheep, but could we do better?


Are all the procedures that are done really necessary, or do we do things like castration just because that’s what has always been done?  Are they done at the right time, with proper equipment, by well trained staff?  Do we take every precaution to prevent things going wrong?  Do staff know that with sheep, silence does not mean content?  Just because sheep don’t protest and bleat (like goats) does not mean they are not suffering.  It is possible to do the most disgraceful things to sheep if their silence is misunderstood.


Do farm workers understand the behavior of sheep, how to handle them, and move them between paddocks?  Is transporting animals done in ways that minimize chances of injury or suffering?


Is feed supply adequate for requirements at each stage of production?  There have been many good articles over the years in Wool Farmer on veld management, crop residue utilization, pastures and supplements, but their adaption for implementation on each farm needs careful consideration by farmers and advisors.  Poor feeding means poor breeding – and just about everything else.  Provision for droughts is a good example of going the extra mile.  Farmers with good plans came out of the last serious drought with the least damage.


The extra care needed at mating, during pregnancy and lactation is costly but the returns justify the expense.  Beyond good production and profits, we also create good welfare – less disease, more and healthier lambs, better growth and more contented animals.


Using the right type of sheep for the farming environment means not just a better return on investment, but also a balanced sheep with lower costs, less susceptible to poor production and disease.  A good example is wool sheep bred for resistance to wire worm – they need far less treatment but still produce well and do not suffer the effects of the parasite. This is not a theoretical concept, it is already being implemented by leading farmers.


Buying the wrong kind of sheep for the circumstances is bad enough, but even worse is buying sheep carrying a disease that can affect the whole flock.  Apart from monetary considerations this imposes avoidable suffering in the flock.


Annual threats to production, profit and animal welfare include infectious diseases, parasites and plant poisons.  Each one will require surveillance, monitoring, prevention and amelioration.  Disasters like fires, floods and droughts also deserve consideration, review and revision on a frequent basis.  Prevention is the first and most important protection against harm, but we also need well thought-out plans of what to do if and when disaster strikes, and how to minimize damage to the animals.


Farmers are busy people and can’t do everything, certainly not in one year.  So, it is better to draw up a list of things that need improvement, and then prioritise them.  Rather do a few things well than many things badly.  Keep that list in sight and make sure that at least some items can be ticked off the list every year.  Pride in these improvements will be justified and farmers are entitled to feel that they’ve gone the extra mile for their livestock that live a happier and more contented life, as well as produce more for the benefit of those who depend on the farm for a livelihood.