Most sheep producers have years of experience with tail docking, but many tails are being cut too short compared to the industry-advised length, which can have life-long implications for sheep health.
The recommended tail docking length is in the space after the third or fourth palpable joint (knuckle) from the body, long enough to cover the tip of the vulva of a ewe, and create medium-long or long tails. Unmulesed sheep should have tails docked no shorter than the fourth joint space. Use the same lengths for ewes in rams and wethers.
A recent AWI and MLA survey of Merino husbandry practices determined that 44 per cent of producers are still docking tail lengths too short, with the average tail length for ewes at 2.5 joints and wethers at 2.4 palpable joints from the body.
Recommended medium-long and long tail lengths (Source: AWI)
There are several considerations why lambs, and eventually mature sheep, have better health and welfare outcomes with medium-long or long tails:
- Longer tails are more effective at preventing breech flystrike. If tails are cut too short, muscles are cut through at the base of the tail which prevent sheep lifting their tails when they defecate and ewes when urinating, or twitching the tail normally to flick flies away. This means short tails tend to lead to more soiling from manuring, higher dag formation and more urine staining in ewes, which can lead to higher rates of breech flystrike.
- Cutting these muscles can also damage nerves to the area around the anus, making short tails more prone to rectal prolapse. If sheep are coughing from pneumonia, which occurs in all sheep production areas, they’re more likely to suffer rectal prolapse if the tail has been docked too short.
- Longer tails heal faster as there is less muscle and tissue to repair, and therefore have less risk of infection which can lead to arthritis in lambs. Vaccines are available to prevent Erysipelas (skin infection), but faster healing is promoted using good hygiene, the younger the lamb, and the longer the tail left.
- Longer tails provide sun protection over the delicate perineal tissue and have lower rates of vulval and anal cancers.
To ensure you don’t cut through muscles close to the base of the tail, cut below the bare area on the underside of the tail, keeping caudal folds (the end of the flaps of skin that attach the underside of the tail to the lamb’s body) intact.
Lamb tails should be docked at two to eight weeks of age, which for a five to six week joining, makes marking two weeks after the end of lambing. Younger lambs are smaller and easier to handle, reducing the proceedure time and stress on the lamb and operator. They have smaller tails, and subsequently less sentitive tissue to be removed, smaller wounds and faster healing.
Give ewes an annual booster vaccination (tetanus, clostridial diseases, cheesy gland and erysipelas arthritis) one month before the start of lambing, and lambs their first vaccination at lamb marking and a booster dose at weaning,
Using competant operators, low stress-stock handling, a gas-heated tail-docking knife and pain relief, and paying attention to hygeine and minimising dust, will have a better welfare impact on the lamb. Release lambs back to their mothers and from the yards to a nearby area (avoiding long walks) as quickly as posssible, allowing animals to settle.