S M A L L   R u m i n a n t   Q & A

What is the short-scrotum method and is it a viable alternative to castration?

How and when should I dock my lambs?

At what age should ram lambs and buck kids castrated?

Why are there different dates for Easter and why does it matter to sheep/goat producers?

When should I give clostridial vaccines to sheep/goats?

What should I vaccinate my sheep/goats for?

The short-scrotum procedure is when you push the testicles up inside the body cavity and band the empty scrotum. Essentially, you are making the lamb/kid a cryptorchid. It is easier to do and less painful than castration (with an elastrator band).

Because the short-scrotum male still has a source of testosterone (his testicles, though they will be smaller), he should still act and grow like an intact male. However, since his testicles are up inside his body and not in the scrotum where they would be several degrees cooler, he should lack the fertility of an intact male. This would allow the co-mingling of males and females without the risk of breeding (theoretically), while gaining the superior growth and carcass characteristics of the intact male.

For two years, a study was conducted at the University of Maryland’s Western Maryland Research & Education Center to compare the growth, carcass, and reproductive characteristics of intact ram, wether (castrated), and short-scrotum rams. East Friesian x Lacaune dairy lambs were utilized for the study. Reproductive traits were assessed when the lambs were 6 to 7 months of age.

In both years, the intact ram and short-scrotum rams grew faster and produced leaner carcasses than the wether lambs. There were no significant differences in carcass muscling once rib eye area was adjusted to a common carcass weight. In both years, the short-scrotum rams displayed similar mating behavior as the intact males, though the latter had more services.

In the first year, the ejaculates of the short-scrotum rams (n=6) were devoid of sperm. The rams (n=6) were determined to be infertile. In the second year, one short-scrotum ram had some viable sperm. Thus, the short-scrotum procedure did not completely cease reproduction in all of the short-scrotum rams (n=7) in year 2.

The short-scrotum procedure may be a viable alternative for sheep/goat producers who pasture-finish their animals. However, while the short-scrotum procedure greatly reduces fertility in the male, there is not a 100 percent guarantee that a short-scrotum male won’t impregnate females.

To reduce the probability of fertility in short-scrotum males, it is recommended that the short-scrotum procedure be performed at a young age (1-7 days, as with castration) and that animals probably not be kept to older ages.

Lambs should generally be docked as soon as management allows and preferably before they are six weeks of age. The most common method of tail docking is to stretch a rubber ring around the tail using an elastrator. The dead tail will eventually fall off, though some producers will cut it off before this happens. Banding should be done when lambs are 1 to 7 days of age.

There are several other tools that can be used to dock lambs’ tails. The Double Crush Emasculator cuts and crushes the tail simultaneously. A Burdizzo crushes the tail and seals the blood vessels, but a knife must be used to cut off the tail. The pain and discomfort of banding can be reduced if the Burdizzo is applied across the tail immediately below the band. A hot iron or electric docker simultaneously cuts the tail and cauterizes the wound. It is considered the least painful method of docking and is the most appropriate for older lambs.

Tails should not be cut off with a knife (alone), as this method is the most painful and can cause excessive bleeding. It is important to note that all methods of docking are painful and pose some degree of risk. Unfortunately, there are no over-the-counter pain relief options available in the US. Aspirin does not provide sufficient pain relief.

The tail should be removed no shorter than the distal end of the caudal tail fold. The tail stub should be long enough to cover the ewe’s vulva and similar length in the male. Very short tail docking, common with many show sheep, is unacceptable. No tail or a very short tail increases the risk of prolapsing. Pain and distress are more pronounced in short-docked lambs. Very short docking compromises the welfare of sheep without providing any benefits.

Regardless of docking method, it is important that lambs be protected against tetanus either through vaccination or passive immunity via colostrum. While tetanus can enter through any wound, elastrator bands pose the greatest risk because they create an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment in which the tetanus organism thrives.

Docking is generally considered to be a best management practice. According to the most recent NAHMS study, over 90 percent of lambs in the US are docked. Docking is done for reasons of health and hygiene. It is done to prevent fecal soiling and flystrike. Docking also facilitates shearing, crutching, and slaughter. It is good for food safety because it keeps carcasses cleaner. It is easier to observe the vulva and udder of a ewe that has been docked.

Lambs from some breeds do not need docking. Hair sheep are not usually docked, though some producers dock Dorper tails. Some sheep have naturally short tails and may not require docking. These include breeds from the Northern European short (or rat) tail variety: Finn, Icelandic, Shetland, Soay, Romanov, Gotland, and East Friesian.

If you market your lambs young and/or can keep their backsides clean, you may not have to dock. Some producers only dock their replacements. Some ethnic buyers prefer unblemished (undocked) animals.

It is recommended that docking and castration be done at the same time.

I’m almost afraid to tackle this question, as it has the potential to be controversial, especially among certain groups of producers. So, I’ll limit my answer to what research supports, noting that recommendations based on research consider animal welfare as the primary criteria. Generally speaking, castration should be done as early as management practices allow, especially if elastrator bands are used.

There are three primary ways to castrate a lamb/kid: banding, crushing, and cutting. All cause pain and pose some degree of risk, regardless of age. From an animal welfare standpoint, we should probably avoid cutting, as research has clearly shown it to be the most painful method of castration, as evidenced by the highest levels of cortisol in the blood. It also has the most potential for infection and fly strike.

Banding (putting a rubber ring around the neck of the scrotum) is the most common method of castration. It should be done when lambs/kids are 1 to 7 days of age. According to the most recent NAHMS study, more than 30 percent of producers castrate ram lambs in the first 7 days of age.

Later castration (~1-6 weeks) can be done with an emasculator (clamp). A Burdizzo is a brand of emasculator. It is used to crush the spermatic cords. According to research, the most humane method of castration would be to combine the use of an elastrator with an emasculator (ideally within 7 days of age).

Callicrate banders have been advocated as a “humane” option for late castration. I am not aware of any research (with sheep/goats) that supports this claim. In fact, an Australian study determined that the Callicrate WEE bander did not reduce the pain associated with ring castration in 10-11 week old lambs.

Some producers are fearful that urinary calculi (kidney or bladder stones) is caused by early castration (less than 3 months). I am not aware of any research in support of this claim. Urinary calculi is a nutritional problem. Almost all incidences can be traced to improper nutrition. Urinary calculi can be prevented by feeding rations with the proper ratio of calcium to phosphorus (2:1 or higher), feeding sufficient long stemmed forage, and having adequate water consumption (can feed salt to encourage water intake). Ammonium chloride is usually added to rations as a further preventative.

If lambs/kids are castrated late (3 months or older), the procedure should be done by a veterinarian. At minimum, pain relief should be provided. While other countries may have options for pain relief, the US does not have any over-the-counter options. Research has shown aspirin and ibuprofen to be insufficient for pain control following banding.

Of course, the best decision is to not castrate at all, but this is not always feasible nor advisable.

Easter is one of the primary holidays that drives the demand for goats and especially lambs. Easter is an annual festival observed throughout the Christian world. It recognizes the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Christmas, which has a fixed date (December 25), Easter is a “movable feast." However, it is always held on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25 (in the West). The date fluctuates because it depends on the moon. Easter is the Sunday after the paschal full moon, the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox.

In the West, the Gregorian calendar is used to determine the date of Easter. In the East, the Julian calendar is used. There is a 13-day difference in the calendars. The Eastern Orthodox Church also applies a formula so that Easter always falls after Passover.

In some years, Easter and Western Easter share the same date (e.g., 2017). In other years, the date of Eastern (or Orthodox) Easter is 1, 4, or 5 weeks later than Western (or Roman) Easter. This year (2021), (Western) Easter falls on April 4, while (Eastern) Orthodox Easter isn’t until May 2.

There have been several attempts, including a recent one by a Vatican Cardinal, to arrive at a fixed date for Easter. None have come to fruition.

The demand for lamb/goat usually increases prior to Easter, especially Eastern Orthodox Easter, since Orthodox Christians tend to be more loyal consumers of lamb than non-Orthodox (Catholics and Protestants). While Orthodox Christians come from many different countries and represent many different nationalities (it is the majority religion in Eastern Europe), Greeks are the most common, which is why we often call Orthodox Easter, “Greek Easter.” Greeks love lamb!

Demand for lambs/kids at Easter time is generally for a young, light weight, milk-fed lambs/kids: < 60 lbs. (lighter for kids). Older, heavier lambs/kids may also bring premium prices at the time of Easter. In fact, Easter is usually a good time to market any sheep/goats, as religious demand coincides with a lower supply of sheep/goats in the marketplace.

Covid-19 was particularly devastating to the lamb market (particularly commodity lambs) in 2020, as its onset coincided with the Easter market for lamb.

It depends. Recommendations vary. Other management practices may factor into timing. Some flocks/herds are at greater risk for clostridial diseases.

The most widely-accepted protocol is to vaccinate ewes/does in the last month of pregnancy so that they pass antibodies to their offspring via the colostrum. The immunity acquired through colostrum is temporary and lasts about 6-10 weeks, after which time lambs/kids should be vaccinated twice with CDT or Covexin®-8. Rams, bucks, and mature wethers should also be given an annual booster. Ewes that were vaccinated as lambs, but not vaccinated in late pregnancy may still pass some immunity onto their offspring, but immunity will be maximized if ewes receive a booster prior to lambing. There is evidence that vaccines are less effective in young lambs due to their immature immune systems. Response to the vaccine improves with age.

Clostridial vaccines may be less effective in goats. Their immune response to vaccination doesn’t seem to be as long lasting as it is in sheep. As a result, some goat producers vaccinate more often to achieve adequate protection. According to the most recently published NAHMS study, 31% of goat owners vaccinate twice yearly (4.4% vaccinated 3-4 times yearly).

Lambs/kids that are artificially-reared are at higher risk for clostridial diseases. They often consume insufficient colostrum or colostrum that is deficient in antibodies. In a 2019 Facebook post, Pipestone Veterinary Services recommended vaccinating orphan lambs every 1-2 weeks.

It is always a good idea to discuss your vaccination program with your veterinarian.

The withdrawal for CDT and Covexin®-8 is 21 days.

The only universally-recommended vaccine for sheep/goats is clostridial diseases, either the popular, three-way vaccine (CDT) or 7 or 8-way vaccines, such as Covexin-8. CDT is sufficient for most farms. It protects sheep/goats against enterotoxemia caused by clostridium perfringins type C and D and also tetanus, caused by clostridium tetani. Covexin-8 provides protection for additional clostridium, including malignant edema and black leg. Producers should discuss the need for Covexin-8 with their veterinarians. Both vaccines are inexpensive and very effective at preventing the consequences that can result from deadly clostridial infections. According to the most recently published NAHMS studies, a majority of US sheep farms vaccinate for clostridial diseases. An even higher percentage of US goat farms vaccinate for clostridial diseases.

There are other diseases for which sheep/goats can be vaccinated for, including abortion (some), caseous lymphadenitis, pneumonia, soremouth, footrot (limited availability), scours, and rabies. These vaccines should be used on an as-needed basis, based on risk and cost-benefit. Not all vaccines are approved for sheep and/or goats. Nor should all of them be given to sheep and/or goats.

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