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Sheep Handling – Make Life Easier

One of the biggest challenges on a sheep farm is the labour requirement. It is possible to improve the situation by having better handling facilities. Eamonn Patten, Drystock Advisor, Ballinrobe has some advice and information

One of the biggest challenges on a sheep farm is the labour requirement and the frequent complaint quoted that ‘the physical workload not being compatible to a modern lifestyle’. It is true we will not eliminate all of the work but we can reduce some of the drudgery. A dramatic improvement is possible from having better handling facilities. If we take a typical flock of a 100 ewes, a good handling unit reduces the time/ labour requirement by more than an hour per ewe per year. It does not sound much but potentially for the flock that adds up to a fortnight’s holiday for you in a year!

A starting point is to decide what is required for the holding. What sheep numbers are currently on the farm and what is the plan to keep in the years ahead? In the West of Ireland more often than not, the holding is fragmented or mixed stock. If sheep are to be on different out farms during the year there is no point having one very elaborate unit on the home farm standing idle. There may be an argument for a permanent fixed unit and a cheaper mobile unit. How much money are you prepared to spend? Remember it is an investment for years ahead rather than months. The best thing to do is to go and have a look at some different units and see them in operation. Most well designed units can even benefit from some adaptions.

Sheep Handling unitA handling unit can vary from a few basic hurdles costing a few hundred euros to systems that can automatically draft animals costing tens of thousands. A set of aluminium/steel hurdles or a full mobile handling facility is invaluable. The steel option is cheaper but is heavier than the aluminium alloys (approx. 3 times more expensive). Some are modular in that you can add on features later if need be. The basics of all are the same; a place to flock the sheep to allow routine tasks be carried out easier and safer. The main parts of a unit would be a collecting pen, a forcing pen/gate, a race for dosing or drafting and a holding pen. It would be advisable to be able to incorporate a footbath also. Some permanent units would also have dipping tubs so siting is very important. If constructing a new permanent unit today with a dipping tub observe that planning permission is a requirement. 

There are many choices of units out there so shop around for what suits your pocket. A farmer may be eligible for a grant for some of this equipment, be it fixed or mobile with the current TAMS allowing up to 40% of reference costs and for eligible young farmers up to 60%. Keep in mind the minimum investment spend for this scheme is €2000. It may also be possible to claim your VAT back on the fixed permanent units. Note also that recent numbers applying for these grants have been high and there is no guarantee that not all applications will qualify to get grant approval.

Even if there is plenty of help available, every sheep farm should have a basic handling unit. This together with the assistance of a good sheep dog will save on a lot of sweat, tears and even tempers! Teagasc have recently published a very comprehensive guide as an aid to designing a handling unit and some aspects you should consider before you spend. See Teagasc publications- A Guide to Designing a Sheep Handling Unit.

Eamonn Patten Drystock advisor

Eamonn Patten, Drystock Advisor, Teagasc Ballinrobe.