All lambs born on my farm get their tails docked. There are many different ways to accomplish tail docking and it varies by location, culture and tradition. Tail docking (shortening of the tail) is usually done in the United States to protect sheep against blowfly strike.
Sometimes when young lambs or adult sheep are on lush grass or are wormy, their manure becomes loose and it will coat their tails, read ends and back legs .
When the weather is warm and humid, a wet, dung coated sheep tail and backside is an attractive breeding ground for flies and is the perfect environment for them to lay their eggs. When those fly eggs hatch, they quickly turn into maggots that tunnel into the sheep’s flesh. Because sheep are so woolly and fluffy it can be hard to see what is happening. Often by the time a shepherd realizes there’s a problem maggots have been slowly eating the sheep alive. Blowfly strike can be fatal.
Tail docking causes transient pain.
But experience has proved to me that the benefits of tail docking far out weigh any temporary discomfort to the lambs.
Over the years there has been much discussion about proper tail length. At one time very short tails were the fashion in show rings across the U.S.
Thankfully now a days most sheep producers will concede that no good comes from too short a tail.
It is generally agreed upon that whatever method of docking is employed, the tail should be shortened to just beneath the caudal tail fold.
A reasonable tail stump is one that is long enough to allow the sheep to “switch” their tails to keep the flies from biting their tender parts.
A sheep’s tail should be long enough to cover the anus in rams and the vulva in ewes.
There are a few different methods of tail docking. Each has a particular advantage and drawback. The two most popular methods in the U.S. are banding and amputation.
Amputation is done in many different ways and I believe it is the most prevalent method worldwide. Tail amputation is the preferred method to reduce the incidence of tetanus. With amputation a lamb’s tail is cut between the vertebrae with a sharp knife or scalpel. Care must be taken with older lambs. Sometimes excessive bleeding is a problem, but usually it can be controlled and stopped with a hot iron or a clean rag applied to the stump.
A few people who I know who use the amputation method here in western Pennsylvania, heat bolt cutters until they are red-hot and then cut the tail off. The heat from the bolt cutters cauterizes the tail stump and prevents bleeding.
THE BANDING METHOD
The method I use and the one that I think is the simplest for beginners is the banding method.
The banding method is bloodless.
With the banding method a heavy-duty rubber ring is placed over the tail with special pliers called an Elastrator.
With the band applied, blood circulation is cut off to the part off the tail beneath the band.
The tail will wither and drop off of its own accord in about 10 – 14 days.
The banding method carries with it the risk of tetanus. That’s one of the reasons for ewes to be current with their booster shots before lambing. Neonatal lambs are protected from tetanus via the colostrum milk from their mothers
A tetanus antitoxin shot should be given to unprotected or at risk lambs at the time of their banding. And all lambs should be healthy and well started before having their tails docked.
With banding, I think the ideal time is when a lamb is between 48 and 72 hours old.
A lamb older than 7 days should not be banded in my opinion.
When the band is applied to the tail there is pain for the lamb, but within 30 minutes or so the pain appears to subside.
When I dock tails I hold the lamb between my knees and lift the tail.
I then place the band on the tail just below the caudal fold and roll the band off the elastrator with my thumb and forefinger.
Sometimes the bands are very stiff and hard to remove from the elastrator on to the tail, but in general, it goes very easy. Just remember that it’s always kinder to leave the tail a little longer than shorter.
Here’s a video I made that will show you how to dock a tail and how to insert a swivel ear tag.