Dagging sheep an ugly but necessary chore
Hands-on farming involves dirt on hands because there are some jobs which are not so clean. We have just worked our way through one of the less nice but most necessary chores, of dagging. The topic of why sheep get dags is probably not covered in conversations over cappuccinos at the cafe but it does get ruminated on over rural refreshments.
Not all sheep produce tidy little faecal pellet piles. Some have custard consistency poo which sticks stinkily to woolly bums. Not all sheep stand up to cleanly evacuate their bowels. Some simply continue to sit chewing cud at one end and creating piles of messy muck at the other end.
Internal parasites affect lambs causing scours and so drenching is important to reduce worm burdens and dags. Feed eaten also changes digestion and the byproduct of it. Dry pasture in, generally results in drier droppings out.
The warm days and regular rains this autumn have given great grass growth. Lush, soft green grass in, has created lots of lush, soft green stuff out and the build up of this around the rear end is called dags. Some dags dry out and hang in pendulum shaped artwork which rattles as the sheep moves. Some dags are a damp and dark decoration, and both batches have a distinctly earthy aroma with a less than delicate hint of dock, decay and digestion.
So for a number of reasons farmers need to remove this crop of undesirable designer dags. The main reason we clean the backside, air the skin and relieve the weight of irritating wet wool is for the animal’s welfare. The sight and smell of on-the-hoof warm dungy yumminess attracts flies. These pests lay eggs in the contaminated wool and hundreds of maggots hatch, chew and burrow. This condition is called flystrike and is far better prevented rather than treated.
Removing dags also results in less soiled fleece when mobs are in yards. Having well dagged sheep means less contaminated wool in the clip, happier shearers and wool handlers.
So because not all sheep produce and carry dags we go through the clean/dirty drafting process. This requires good teamwork between the caller at the back and the operator at the front on the gate at the end of the race.
The ‘‘clean’’ mob head out to the paddock and the dirties are run through the dagging plant. Bigger pens lead to a long narrow pen and sheep file up a race and into a crate. This restrains each animal while dags are carefully cut off with the shearing machine.
The topic of why sheep get dags is probably not covered in conversations over cappuccinos at the cafe
Some farmers dag sheep across the shearing board but we are glad of our dagging set up as it takes some of the hard work out of a less fun job. Jock is on the handpiece and I help keep sheep moving up the race to receive his ministrations. The well known stereotype of sheep being followers is not true as some possess highly individualistic thinking and take some persuasion to present themselves for clean up.
It’s a workplace with sounds of hissing hydraulics, banging gates, intermittent compressor noise and hooves trotting on gravel. With strong smells of lanolin and excrement. My diligent husband patiently and repetitively catches a sheep, pulls the switch, deals with dags, and releases the clean sheep out of the crate.
The mob behind grows smaller and the pile of dags grows higher. We get in a routine and do about 100 an hour. Dirty work for hands but it leaves my mind free to think of all kinds of things ... like words for my next column.
Joyce Wyllie is a sheep farmer at Kaihoka in Golden Bay.
Lambs return to the paddock with clean rear ends.