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Wednesday, 08 October 2008 13:42

Docking lambs

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What are the benefits?

Docking removes most of the lamb’s tail to prevent build up of dags on the wool around the sheep’s back end. Dags attract attack (strike) by blowfly. The sheep become “blown” and the fly’s maggots eat the sheep’s flesh causing great pain and distress.

What age should you dock lambs?

The sheep code of welfare recommends that lambs should not be docked before they have bonded with their mothers after birth - allow them at least 24 hours. Docking, regardless of the method used, should take place before 6 weeks of age. The earlier it can be done the better.

Method 1 - Rubber rings

The sheep code of welfare recommends this is the best method, especially for lay people to use. You can use the rings to take the tail off at the same time as castration.

Avoid using an unheated knife for docking. It is not humane and infection risks are greater.

Key points in docking with rubber rings:

  • Do it before the lambs are 6 weeks old.
  • Lambs will experience pain for 10-20 minutes after ringing.
  • If older lambs have to be docked, consult a veterinarian regarding the most suitable method and use of anaesthetic.
  • Use a clean operating area (eg. movable temporary yards) to avoid build up of infection.
  • Do not dock wet lambs or in wet weather to avoid infections.
  • Leave enough dock on the lamb to fully cover the vulva.
  • Cut the tail of male lambs the same length.
Method 2 - Hot iron

This is a wedge-shaped iron blade heated by gas, which can be used to both cut and cauterise the tail in one operation. The lamb is held in a sitting position and the iron is forced down on the tail laid out on the wood docking board.

Key points in docking with the hot iron:

  • Do it before the lambs are 6 weeks old.
  • Lambs will experience pain and struggle during the operation.
  • They show little distress afterward.
  • Make sure the tail is cauterised as it is cut. Don’t press on too hard to cut and not give time for cauterisation.
  • After the operation, 2-3 seconds to make sure there is no bleeding.
  • Don’t be tempted to dip the rear end of the lamb in a drum of dip. This soon becomes dirty and will do more harm than good.
  • If older lambs have to be docked, consult a veterinarian regarding the most suitable method and use of anaesthetic.
  • Use a clean operating area (eg. movable temporary yards) to avoid build up of infection.
  • To avoid infections, do not dock wet lambs or in wet weather.
  • Leave enough dock on the lamb to fully cover the vulva.
  • Cut the tail of male lambs the same length.
After care

There should be few problems. Blowfly attack is the most likely and treatment with an appropriate spray will prevent this. Consult your veterinarian.

Dr Clive Dalton

Clive did a Ph.D. in sheep breeding at the University of North Wales at Bangor. After lecturing at Leeds University, he came to New Zealand to do research with MAF. Because of his communication skills, he moved to the Ruakura Agricultural Research Centre to be fully involved in interpreting science for practical application by farmers.

After 14 years he moved to teach at the Waikato Polytechnic where he taught young future farmers. He won the 1993 Landcorp Communicator of the Year award and the 1999 Sir Arthur Ward award for agricultural communication.