Tuesday, February 23, 2010

To Dock or Not to Dock, that is the question...

Every year, when we sit down to fill out our organic certification application, there is one question that always makes me pause. And every year I fill out the answer that I know will pass, but it is the one answer I'm never sure I actually believe in.
"Do you perform any physical alterations to your livestock (castration, tail docking, etc)? If yes, identify the procedure, the age at which the procedure is done."
And every year I answer honestly that yes, we dock lambs tails at 3 days of age, using the elastrator method. If the application asks why I explain that it is for a few reasons but mostly for cleanliness. Also, when my sheep were purebred, it is important to maintain conformity in breeding stock if I planned to sell to other purebred breeders. The real answer is, "because it's always been done." If there is one thing about agriculture that I have learned from Mark it's that 'just because it's always been that way', isn't a good enough reason to keep doing it that way. I find myself constantly re-learning that over and over again with organics.
The cleanliness factor comes mostly from Australia where something called 'flystrike' is a legitimate concern where flies lay their eggs in manure covered wool and the maggots worm their way into the flesh (that gets the prize for best mental image of your day I bet). Anyway, it's the most oft cited reason given for tail docking, but there are others.
I've read things about tails getting in the way of breeding and lambing (how sheep manage to have more problem than any other animal with a tail is beyond my comprehension and belief to be honest), and reasons about packing houses and abattoirs docking for long tails (yes that's a purposeful pun!). There are endless comments out there about it and for the most part I think that they sound like they are convincing themselves that it's the right thing to do.
So this year I had told myself that I wasn't going to dock the ram lambs, since they're only around for a few months anyway, how much of a hassle can a long tail be? Then I started reading and found a really good fellow organic blogger who had tried a couple years of not docking and regretted it. She said it was mostly because of that first time the sheep hit the pasture in the spring and everyone gets the runs from the lush grasses and clovers, the long tails never really clean up, where the short ones do. As in, the manure clings onto that wooly tail and just sticks around forever, whereas the sheep with short tails can scratch themselves up against a fence post and ta da, fresh as a daisy...ok, a stretch maybe.
Anyway, once again, I've docked the tails of my first ewe lambs. I've got a lovely set of twin rams however, that I haven't docked and they are going to be my 'control' group. We'll see how they make out come summer.
As a final word I would like to clear up that tail docking is a relatively painless ordeal. Not to say it isn't painful, but I really believe that it is a minor concern for the lambs, who seem more worried about finding their mother to nurse from than anything else. So all you conventional sheep breeders out there (ahem..mom) don't come after me for being a animal rights activist or anything. I understand the reasons for it, I just wonder for a commercial flock if it's as necessary as we've always thought.

In other lamb news, my first little ewe from my oldest lady is a bit on the runty side and gets a bottle once in a while, but everyone else is doing A-Ok! Still have 14 ewes left to lamb (hopefully that many are pregnant) and I hope they're mostly done with by the 5th of March which is when the ACORN conference comes to town and Mark and I will be gone most of the day. Here's hoping!

Cheryl is still 'rocking' the curling scene and the Olympics have taken over our lives here in Freetown. We stayed with her when we went out the Calgary Stampede a few years ago and now it seems surreal to see her at the top of the standings in Vancouver. It feels like 1998, Nagano, Japan when my cousin Stacy Wilson was the captain of the Canadian women's hockey team who took Silver that year (the first year for women's hockey). I remember getting up in West Branch, NB at 4 am to watch that final game and I came to have a whole new appreciation for the Olympics that year that has stayed with me.

Go Canada Go!


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