Have you ever put a hair ponytail around your wrist and forgot about it for a few hours-then when you take it off you’ve got that indentation where it was cutting into your circulation? Sometimes if it was tight you might have even been a little itchy or tingly at first, but you forgot about it as soon as someone spilled milk all over the floor or the dog yakked up yellow Tonka truck pieces on the porch? (Yes, true story.)
That’s how we “dock” lamb tails.
We have a tool (called an “elastrator”) that stretches these tiny (but really thick and strong!) rubber bands wide enough to fit over the lamb’s tail. When you need to dock a tail, you roll the green bands onto the pronged end of the elastrator and squeeze the handle. The prongs separate and stretch the band out wide so that you can slid it up over the lamb’s tail. Then you roll the band off the elastrator onto the tail and leave it there.
Slowly, over about 10-14 days, it cuts off the circulation to the lower part of the tail. The lower portion withers and eventually falls off and you’ll find them laying around the field. It’s a little creepy and a little funny at the same time. They’re just little scrapes of wool, about 7-8 inches long.
The boys love to pick them up out of the field and chase each other with them. That’s boys for you.
I won’t lie, the bands are tight. The lambs don’t like it right at first. They’re clearly uncomfortable. It last about 30 minutes or so, depending on the size of the lamb, then they are just as clearly over it and don’t even notice any more. The older the lamb, the thicker the tail. The thicker the tail, the more discomfort this method causes. So we have a firm rule that it has to be done within the first 3 days or not at all.
We usually shoot for sometime between hour 24 and 36 after birth. The first 24 hours we don’t want to do anything to mess up the momma-lamb bonding if we don’t have to. And after the second day, they get much faster and harder to catch!
We dock because the rump areas under long tails can get very messy very quickly in our hot, humid climate, which makes a hygiene nightmare. It becomes a prime breeding ground for flies and parasites and things that go down hill from there.
I’m speaking from experience here because we have that 3 day rule and sometimes a late pasture lamb has slipped through without getting docked. It’s just yuck–a problem all season long.
We are careful to dock leaving enough tail to cover their “function” areas. All our girls’ have tails covering their girl-parts. We think their tails do serve an important “protection” function for their rump areas. Some show sheep are docked to less than 1 inch–pretty much as close as you can get that band to their body! I, personally, don’t like that method at all and think it causes just as much probability of health trouble as a long tail can.
There’s also several “cutting” methods for docking tails if you don’t like using bands. Some folks think that bands are more prone to infections because of the length of time they are one. There are a host of considerations for sanitation, wound infection, pain, etc. associated with all methods.
I suggest that you read up on it before picking the method that’s right for you. This isn’t a tutorial (would that be helpful?!) it’s jut an overview. My favorite overall sheep management book is Storey’s Guide to Raising Sheep by Paula Simmons and Carol Ekarius. This book is highlighted, underlined, dog-eared and wrinkled in our library. It’s perfect for beginners or intermediate shepherds, and overviews all the docking options with pros and cons, instructions, and follow up requirements.
And if you’re humane-conscious about your food choices, don’t hesitate to ask your farmer or producers about any of these methods! They should absolutely be able to describe exactly what they do and why, how the animal reacts to it, and what the pros and cons of their own methods are.
Do you have any farm questions you’ve always wondered about?