Having The Balls To Be Different
As part of thereview of our organic standards, we spoke to Tim White, a commercial grazier from Salisbury plain about how he manages his flock without the need to castrate or tail dock.
What type of system do you operate?
I am a grazier operating on short term lets on 4-5 sites in and around Salisbury plain, in Wiltshire. I run around 700 – 1000 breeding sheep, depending on the year. This year I had about 600 tups (tups are uncastrated male sheep). Around half of my flock is organic, but all my sheep are managed extensively, in a minimum input system. It is important that my sheep are capable of breeding as ewe lambs and subsequently rearing multiple lambs without supplementary feeding or human intervention. As such, I primarily use Exlana sheep, which are wool shedding sheep and don’t need shearing. They are generally easier to manage and require less input from me. We also breed a small number of Charollais. We still tail dock our Charollais lambs to help prevent fly strike but hope to select for animals with less woolly back ends and eventually remove this need. We have been breeding Exlana for 16 years, selecting for sheep that can look after themselves. We sell these as breeding stock to producers looking to improve the productivity and reduce inputs for their flocks.
How do you manage your flock without castrating?
We separate the boys from the girls about a month before tupping (mating). You need to be able to keep the ram lambs completely separately from the ewe lambs. We keep them on separate sites, or have at least a couple of fields separating them. If you just have a fence separating them, the males will spend all day running down the length of the fence and will not eat.
Have you castrated before? If so, can you explain why you changed to keeping intact males?
We used to, when I looked after a mule flock. Then when I changed to an extensive organic system I stopped. It was important to me that I had a higher welfare system. It is often people’s perception that you have to castrate, however I disagree, if you have the right system it is better for the animals and it saves on handling and labour costs.
Can you describe the benefits of not castrating?
Ram lambs grow quicker than castrates and don’t run to fat, producing a leaner meat which can be more desirable. Entire ram lambs can also fetch a small premium from religious groups and for celebrations at certain times of the year, such as Ramadan, where meat from the entire animal is in demand. I have also had interest from European countries such as Germany where there is a demand for entire rams with tails.
I also believe it is better for their welfare not to castrate. The first thing I tell anyone working who works on my farm is that each sheep is an individual. They are sentient animals and should be looked after as such.
Do you have any problems with fighting or increased aggression between entire males?
Not really, we give our lambs plenty of space which helps. The lambs are still young when we sell them for slaughter; most are gone by 8 months. They are still adolescents at that age, a bit boisterous, but never aggressive.
Have you had any problems with marketing entire lambs?
I sell to supermarkets and directly to other customers and have never had any problems. The abattoirs we sell to have never complained. I have heard that some butchers have issues with entire males. Some people complain that the meat from uncastrated males has a distinctive taste which is known as “ram taint”. However, if you slaughter early enough and keep the boys away from the girls this should never be a problem.
What advice would you give a farmer who is considering keeping entire ram lambs?
I don’t see any problems with raising entire males for slaughter. If you run an extensive system, where you lamb outside and where you can separate the males from the females there are many benefits to not castrating. They grow faster and produce a leaner meat. However, you need to have a market for the lambs. Ram lambs can be harder to sell as store lambs. It is thus useful to have the space and ability to finish lambs so you don’t have to sell any as stores.
Ram lambs are also more susceptible to intestinal worms, it is therefore especially important to pay attention to your worm management when keeping entire males.
How do you manage your flock without the need to tail dock?
We actively select for stock with shorter tails. Shorter tails help to keep the bum clean, which reduces the risk of fly strike. Using wool shedding breeds also helps prevent heavy dag formation (wool matted with dung). We also dag score our sheep every October and select sheep with the cleanest bums for breeding. It is a heritable trait which can be bred in to reduce dag formation and reduce the risk of fly strike. We do this in October, as this when we are likely to see the greatest variability in scores which improves our chances of selecting the best sheep for breeding. The Aussies have been doing this for a long time; they of course have a much greater problem with fly strike than we do.
Have you tail docked before?
Yes, years ago when we had a mule flock. We did it because of tradition and perceptions at the time, which still run true now and are hard to break. We realised that tail docking is not a necessity and by choosing the right breed of sheep with shorter tails and less wool we are able to avoid tail docking. This is better for us, as it requires less handling and labour, and it’s better for sheep welfare.
So you mostly use wool shedding breeds, are there other breeds which have a reduced susceptibility to fly strike?
It is possible to leave the tails on for all breeds. However, woolly breeds will tend to have dirty bums, which can cause issues. This can be managed with selective breeding for clean bums and careful management. Where it is windy, for example up in the hills, fly strike tends to be less of an issue and it is often possible to leave the tails on. Many shepherds and sheep breeders currently breed for more muscle and fat rather than for economic traits, such as cleaner bums and good mothering. We always select for economic gain, which is often synonymous with welfare gain.
What would you say to producers considering to no longer tail dock?
I would ask them to question and really think about their reasons for tail docking. For many shepherds it just isn’t necessary.
We are updating our organic food and farming standards. We want to know what you think about the proposed changes to the organic standards which will affect all Soil Association licensees. We’re aiming to make our standards as straightforward, practical and transparent as possible.