Most farmers regard old ewes, rams, wethers and castrated goats as surplus (unwanted), and send them to the market for slaughter. But how do you know when it’s time to get rid of an animal? The answer is to keep accurate records – this will help you to identify which animals are not doing well. Look for the following criteria:
Sheep and goats shed their temporary (“milk” or “baby”) teeth from the age of 12 months. After this, they are aged according to the appearance of their eight incisors – the teeth in the lower front jaw. The first two permanent incisors appear between 14 and 18 months, and this sheep is then referred to as a “two-tooth” sheep.
The second pair of incisors should appear at about two years (a “four-tooth” sheep), the third pair at about three years (a “six-tooth sheep”) and the fourth pair at about four years (a “full-mouthed” sheep). These ages can vary as teeth appear at different times in different breeds.
As the animal gets older, the teeth wear down through grazing or become loose. Eventually, it will no longer be able to eat properly, and milk production will decrease. When feeding conditions are poor, for example during drought when the animals are forced to eat tougher, fibrous plants, their teeth can start wearing down at an early age. You may even need to cull a six-tooth animal. Check the teeth of ewes after weaning and before the next mating. If the teeth are beginning to wear, the animal should be culled.
From the age of five to six years, ewes’ teeth start to become worn and they can’t eat properly anymore. As a result, they’re unable to produce milk efficiently and this affects the growth of the lambs. At this stage you should replace them with younger animals. These ewes should have had at least four lambing opportunities by this time.
Animals with above-average performance can be kept longer, but take care that they get enough feed and are able to eat it properly.
Ewes that don’t fall pregnant after two matings, or who are poor mothers, should be culled. Older rams that can no longer cover ewes should also be replaced. Make sure, too, that rams don’t mate with their own offspring – replace them after two years or move them to other ewe flocks.
Meat and marketing
Nowadays, leaner (less fatty) meat fetches higher prices, so older animals in a fair condition can be sold without feeding them first. Also, remember that feeding older animals is not profitable as they tend to put on fat quickly.
There are several ways to market your surplus animals. You can sell them:
- To a livestock agent.
- To an abattoir.
- At a stock auction.
- To stock-dealers on the farm.
- Directly to the consumer, either slaughtered or alive.
In an abattoir, the carcasses are divided into four classes according to age:
- Class A: lambs that haven’t shed any teeth.
- Class A/B: one to two incisors.
- Class B: three to six incisors.
- Class C: more than six incisors.
The carcasses are further classified according to the fat on them:
- 0: no fat.
- 1: very lean.
- 2: lean.
- 3: medium.
- 4: fat.
- 5: too fat.
- 6: much too fat.
Class A2 and A3 lambs fetch the highest prices, while older animals fetch lower prices. Ram lambs that have started shedding their teeth are classified as adult rams and fetch lower prices too. If you can, try to sell your stock directly from the farm as this will save you transport costs. Also, sell by weight, and to agents from reputable companies. If you want to slaughter your animals yourself, you must follow proper, legal hygiene and slaughtering standards.
During a drought, there might not be enough grazing for the sheep, and you should be prepared to sell animals even if they are not ready for slaughter. Keep only as many breeding animals as you need to continue once the rains return. All fat stock, older ewes and wethers should be sold to give the young ewes a better chance of survival.
Source: fact sheet prepared for the Western Cape department of agriculture by TS Brand and B Aucamp of the Cape Institute for Agricultural Training at Elsenburg.