Weaning Day – Handling and Stress

On my approaches to weaning, handling, and stress: 

One of the most stressful times in a farm animal’s life is weaning. There are other stressful times, such as hauling and pre-slaughter, but weaning is a little different. Here’s why:

The main thing a visitor to the farm would notice is that a weaned calf/cow or lamb/ewe are bawling. They will cry out for each other for hours, usually a couple days. Some cry louder and harder than others. We notice the stress exactly because the animal makes so much noise. Animals in transit are under stress (they’ll usually lose weight), but they often remain fairly quiet.

If an animal smells blood pre-slaughter, it will likely be VERY stressed. My parents’ horse has smelled a deer being dressed and does not like it. Even so, we’re talking about a  short period of time.

Weaning stress carries on until the animal forgets. All one can do is provide something else to focus on and hope the forgetting comes sooner than later.2014-03-03 09.47.19

That said, there are things that can be done to reduce the stress of weaning. These are mostly my ideas, based on farm experience, not in-depth study of animal behavior.

  1. Plan your weaning date well ahead. Whether you’re weaning at 60 days, 6 weeks, or 1 m
    onth, have your feeding progression planned so that mother and lamb are prepared. Change lamb feeds before or after weaning, not during.
  2. A recommended item is to keep the lamb in the same pen, and remove the ewe. New surroundings mean more stress. The ewe can handle it better than the lamb.
  3. On weaning day, I like to feed (grain) earlier than other days, then come back and wean before noon. I do this because the barn is 50 yards from the house, in hopes that bawling will wane (a little) by bed time. I also want the lambs to have feed in their bellies. Some might not eat much that day, so I figure a partially-filled stomach is better.
  4. Minimize handling. I wean. I walk away.
  5. Treat weaning as long as the symptoms (bawling, appetite) are shown. The process doesn’t end when ewes and lambs are separated; it ends when they get over it. Just keep things simple.

Years ago, my dad and I made the mistake of changing several things at once. We weaned, vaccinated, ear-tagged, and changed the rations of a few lambs all in one day. The result was treacherous to the health of the lambs. They went off feed (ate almost nothing), which caused them long-term growth issues. It was a serious oversight that could have been prevented.

What did I learn? One thing at a time.

I suppose someone else might propose minimizing the amount of handling events, doing several tasks at once, but I’ve chosen to go the opposite route for now. Even if it is more work for me. My theory is that several occurrences of little stress is better than one event with many stresses compounded.

I have a list of things to do, which I do on separate days, usually a week apart: 1) round 1 vaccination, 2) docking, 3) round 2 vac, 4) ear tag, 5) castration, 6) weaning. I’ll always try to balance these things against other changes (pen, ration, weather) in the lambs life.

Spring Weaning

I weaned most of the lambs a couple weeks ago. It went well. Everybody cried for a couple days, but nobody lost their appetite.

The sign of a successful weaning: It’s uneventful.

I captured a couple scenes from the barn, pre- and post-weaning.


Other handling

I’ve read that moon cycles effect the ease of handling sheep. I don’t doubt this, but I don’t keep very good track of the moon (not at all), and the moon isn’t in sync with the rest of my schedule. If you can, consider factoring it in. Otherwise here are a few more things I try to do to keep the sheep at ease.

  • Work in evenings during the summer. Best to let them loaf during the day.
  • Be familiar. Let animals get to know a space, as well as be physically close to you, without working them. They’ll be more comfortable with you and the pen when it comes time for hoof trimming or de-worming.
  • I don’t have a chute system. My alternative is to move the sheep from bigger spaces to smaller ones, then do the handling in the smallest pen possible. Even if I only need to get at one sheep, I would rather have a few more head to make the pen tight, than to have room for them to run around as I try to catch one. Yes, I’m putting stress on more sheep, but they also have company.
  • Be calm. Sheep aren’t always going to follow direction. If you’re getting frustrated, take two.
  • One could familiarize sheep with a trailer before transport. I’ve never done this. Mostly, minimize the time on board, without driving too fast. Also let them eat and drink well before boarding. Drive slowly on gravel roads that would cause them to cough.


Other stress

The main things I deal with are extreme temperatures and parasite (worm) pressure.

I try to keep the coolest part of the barn available in the summer. I keep newborns in a closed off section of barn during winter. I also use a heating lamp sometimes. I had several lambs suffer frost-bite on ears and tails this year. I plan to remedy that by toweling-off ears soon after births.

The simplest remedy to worms is de-worming on the proper regimen. Grazing lambs do not have tolerance for worms and MUST be de-wormed once per month, until 6 months old. The withdrawal of Ivomec is 30 days. If you watch closely, you’ll notice. A few of my ewes need to be de-wormed, others don’t. Let them show you what their needs are.

Combine that with effective grazing. When rotating paddocks, run lambs ahead of ewes.

I have my grazing pattern planned out by week.


This post is in no way exhaustive of handling tips, nor is it the final authority. I’d be glad to hear about things others are doing differently.

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