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Taking The Work
Out Of Working Sheep



By John Kirchhoff


In the past, when vaccinating, worming and sorting sheep I most definitely had what you would call a “handling system” or “working system.”

My children hated my “system” because it consisted of handling every animal along with a lot of work, swearing and frustration.

As my flock grew in numbers, I dreaded those sheep working days. I knew at the end of the day every stitch of my clothing was going to be soaked with sweat, I’d be covered in sheep manure, mud and hair from the waist down, I would be physically exhausted and my kids wouldn’t speak to me for a week.

A diagram of John Kirchhoff's sheep-working barn.
A diagram of John Kirchhoff’s sheep-working barn.

After one such marathon session, I lay unmoving on the couch like a well-prepared corpse interrupted only by the occasional poke of a finger followed by “Yeah, Mom, he’s still alive.”

It was during this near death experience that I realized I was getting too old for the “crowd ‘em in the barn and grab ‘em” sheep rodeos. I decided a well thought-out handling system should allow the operator to work the animals with a minimum of physical and mental stress for both the human and the animal.

It took several years of designing, re-designing, building and making yet more changes for my new barn-working system project to come to fruition. From my project I’ve learned two very valuable lessons: (1) No matter how thoroughly you think something through, looking functional on paper doesn’t always translate into being functional in real life. (2) Anything that makes the animals more comfortable is going to make you more comfortable and vice versa.

Here are a few things I’ve learned (many the hard way) that I believe should be considered when constructing working facilities.

How John Kirchhoff's sheep-working set-up operates.
How John Kirchhoff’s sheep-working set-up operates.

Let There Be Light

Install plenty of lights, as in double the candlepower of what ag engineers recommend. Don’t take the easy route and just double the wattage of each fixture, but double the number of fixtures. You’ll spend some extra money on wire and fixtures, but when you have a well-lit, shadow free environment to work in at midnight, you’ll be glad you did. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to pull a lamb in darkness or deep shadows. Plus, chances are your spouse is going to frown on being rousted from a deep sleep and warm bed to hold a flashlight for you on the coldest night of the year. Take my word for it, spending a few more bucks on lights is much preferable to incurring the wrath of a vengeful spouse.

Affordable Light Reflectors

Dark colored ceilings literally soak up light without reflecting any downward. Rather than painting the ceiling white or using higher wattage bulbs, you can increase the energy efficiency of incandescent bulbs 40% by making an inexpensive reflector out of a “throw away” aluminum pie pan. Cut a hole slightly larger than the neck of the bulb in the center of the pan, slip the bulb through, screw it in place and you’re set to go. (For safety, make sure the pan doesn’t touch the threaded end of the bulb.)

Removing the bulbs periodically to wash off dust and fly droppings maintains light output.

What About Fluorescents?

Lighting with incandescent bulbs requires more electricity than does fluorescent bulbs, but unless you run a lot of lights for a mighty long time, the electricity savings aren’t going to offset the higher cost of fluorescent bulbs and fixtures designed for outdoor use.

An ordinary household fluorescent light fixture can be impossible to get started when the temperature is really cold. Without a more expensive fixture with special ballast, when you flip the switch in single digit temperatures all you’ll get is a pale glow at the end of the bulb.

John Kirchhoff's loading door. Notice how high the window is at right.
John Kirchhoff’s loading door. Notice how high the window is at right.

3-Way Lights At Entrances

For convenience as well as safety, I like to have a separate entrance into the building for people and animals. I suggest installing a three-way light switch at each entrance for the following reason: The mama that wasn’t due until next week is standing in the pasture with brand new babies as dusk approaches. By the time you coax her and the little ones to the barn, it’s nearly dark outside and it’s very dark inside the barn. By the time you climb over the gate, go around to the walk-in door, flip on the light and walk through the barn to the back entrance, momma and babies are hightailing it back to the pasture whence they started.

I’ve also found animals travel much faster when they’re going where they want to go rather than where you want them to go.

A bit of free advice; don’t even think about blundering through a pitch-black barn in search of the switch; I still have scars on my shins from that courageous but equally stupid idea.

While you’re at it, also put an outside light with a switch close at hand at the animal’s entrance.

For outside lights, I prefer the old fashioned, 300-watt incandescent bulb and reflector as opposed to the weatherproof bulbs. While less expensive overall, even the floodlight style of weatherproof bulb tends to shine in a spotlight. You’ll find animals never stand in the 250-watt, 20-foot wide oval those bulbs project. In fact, they wise up pretty quickly and learn to stand about 30 feet away and taunt you with their superior nighttime vision.

Go To The Light, Carrie Ann

Remember that line from the movie “Poltergeist?” Had Carrie Ann been a four-legged farm animal, she would have done so without being told. All common livestock species naturally gravitate from darkness to light except when it’s that spotlight we talked about earlier. With that exception aside, keep that in mind when designing facilities that require you to coax animals into it (as opposed to them entering voluntarily).

Notice I used the word “coax?”

Folding gate swings even where openings don't have constant width
Folding gate swings even where openings don’t have constant width

I’ve learned the hard way it’s much less stressful for everyone involved if you just stay calm, quiet and bide your time when working animals. When moving a group of animals into a barn, it’s very common for them to come to a complete halt just outside the door. Animals may be patient but if you’re more so, you can outlast them. Stand quietly and they will eventually tire of standing there doing nothing and will calmly walk in by themselves. However, if the inside of the barn is dark, they are going to be very reluctant to enter no matter how bored they are. Over millennia they have acquired a wariness of any place they can’t see-there’s no telling what might be lurking in there. It’s an easily understandable mechanism of natural selection; all the stupid ones who didn’t fear dark places got eaten. It also explains why Mr. Ram is perfectly content to stand in the dark and watch as you stand in the 250-watt circle we mentioned earlier. It’s all a matter of self-preservation; he can see you but you can’t see him.

When interiors are well lit-naturally or artificially-animals feel much safer about entering. In my barn, a large sliding door opposite the animal’s entrance admits plenty of light and is a very helpful enticement for them to enter.

Folding gate hitches solidly against wall.
Folding gate hitches solidly against wall.

Darkness can also work in your favor as a means of keeping animals away from a certain area. Closing the sliding door just mentioned makes a different part of the barn appear brighter which encourages animals to move toward that direction.

Windows: The Light Goes In, The Sheep Go Out

Like most things, windows have their pros and cons. They let natural light in and allow ventilation but are expensive, time consuming to install and sometimes leak. Glass is nice because it doesn’t discolor or weather like fiberglass or other translucent materials, but sometimes a kamikaze sparrow will break it.

Many years ago I learned something the hard way; install windows higher than your animal’s MLA (maximum leaping altitude). Remember what I said about animals moving toward light? Take it from me: Get a frightened ewe cornered and she has no reluctance whatsoever at leaping through a glass window. If you’ve ever seen a circus dog leap through a hoop, you get the idea.

Managing Air Movement

Too much or too little air movement in barns can make the difference between having a place that’s healthy or unhealthy for you and your animals. Your animals’ behavior in regard to shelter and weather is often a clue concerning ventilation deficiencies.

When a winter storm comes up and your animals leave the barn to go stand in the woods, there must be a good reason why. Animals are no different than people in that they prefer to be where they’re most comfortable. When cold winter winds blow, the interior of a non-insulated, drafty metal barn high on a hill can be more uncomfortable than standing outside in a low area protected from the wind.

Door openings located at the wrong location can actually pull snow into the barn when whipped by strong winds.

If your animals stand downwind of your barn rather than in it during a blizzard, you can bet drafts, overcrowding or foul air is the reason.

Ventilation In Winter Is Extremely Important

My mother’s goats detest inclement weather and would be perfectly content to stay inside the barn the entire winter as long as you brought feed and water to them. Goats inside a well built, tight, windowless barn with no roof insulation produces rain showers inside the barn as warm moist air condenses on the cold metal roof.

The result? Goats + moisture = pneumonia.

There’s a big difference between having a draft and having ventilation inside a building. Drafts blow straight through causing animals discomfort whereas proper ventilation directs air movement throughout the barn in an indirect manner and carries moisture and odor away from the animals.

Here’s a bit of critter psychology I’ve learned: A barn that’s too comfortable encourages animals to stand in the barn and poop it full.

In wintertime, I give animals access to shelter only in the worst of weather or when they have small lambs that are easily chilled. I bed down ewes with lambs only in the worst of weather and leave it kind of messy the rest of the time. They’d much rather sleep outside on dry frozen ground than in fresh manure inside. As a result, they’re exposed to a more healthful outdoor environment and deposit just that much less manure in the barn.

If you’re going to be working animals, both you and the animals need to be as comfortable as possible. That means shade in the summer, out of the wind in the winter and out of the rain and mud in spring.

The heat generated by a large number of nervous animals crowded into a small area has always been one of my biggest problems. Combine this with a hot, humid, windless summer day and you have a situation that not only makes people short-tempered and animals contrary, but can pose a health hazard for all parties involved.

On my barn I have a large exhaust fan designed to push foul air out of the barn draft free whenever necessary. This works great in winter and does help remove heat in summer, but does little to actually increase animal comfort. To solve that problem I have 1/4 horsepower electric motors with fans-located directly over the working alley-that blow air onto people and animals.

Near the roof and aimed at the crowding area I have a 11/2 hp motor to which I attached a heavy-duty truck fan blade. That little jewel moves a tremendous amount of air and the difference in comfort level for both me and the animals is astounding. It’s probably one of the most valuable additions I’ve made in the area of comfort.

Sometimes, managing air movement both inside and outside of a building turns into a real juggling act.

I started out with intentions of having the building open on the south to allow air movement and sunlight to enter in the winter. The idea looked good on paper but failed miserably in reality. Strong spring winds or storms put a tremendous amount of pressure on doors from the inside out, nearly ripping them off their hinges. I ended up enclosing the south with two sliding doors and a 2-foot high strip of translucent plastic under the eave to admit light. I can now open the doors for light and air but close them when necessary.

The Ins & Outs Of Working Chutes

Crowding gates are indispensable when used for crowding or forcing animals into another area, but my dilemma was how to make one that had to swing through a 225-degree arc with a radius that varied from 10 to 12 feet. That one caused me a lot of head scratching but the answer finally came to me one night when I should have been sleeping but wasn’t. I built a 10-foot gate that would clear the narrowest opening and on the outer end attached an additional 2-foot, 4-inch mini-gate hinged on the opposite side the animals would be on.

As I crowd animals forward, the hinged section is swung outward to whatever angle is necessary to fully close the opening. When fully extended, the extra four inches makes the gate too wide to swing through the 12-foot opening and effectively locks it in place. As the gate swings around, this same principle wedges the gate in place against other posts or the wall. Animals pushing against the gate only serves to tighten the wedge.

No two situations are the same and as a result, there is no such thing as a one size fits all working system.

Protect chute panel edges and corners to prevent cuts and chafes to man and beast.
Protect chute panel edges and corners to prevent cuts and chafes to man and beast.

When purchasing a generic working system, be assured you’ll probably need to make a few (or even lots of) changes for it to function effectively in your operation. Whether you purchase or build your own system, you’ll find it’s the little things (or absence thereof) that greatly affects the operator’s frustration factor.

Using hooks or latches to secure gates in the open position is one example. It never fails; gates seem to have a way of staying open until that contrary old ewe is about three feet from being through, then they magically swing shut and she’s off and running the other direction. Hooks needn’t be expensive; a fence staple and a piece of fence panel rod bent in a vise with a hammer is all it takes. Another option is using a stretchable “bungee” cord. Anything beats the old baling wire or board-propped-against-the-gate trick.

Safety Around Gates & Openings

Be especially concerned with safety for both you and the animals.

Look for anything protruding. This means cutting off overly long bolts, using carriage bolts or countersinking bolt heads-and clinching or cutting off the ends of nails and screws that extend past the board. You or an animal can be impaled or ripped wide open if mashed against such an inconspicuous item.

Putting springs on doors that are meant to give humans access to areas with livestock ensures positive closing. The last thing you want to see is a wild eyed, 300-pound ram barreling down the narrow working area you happen to be trapped in.

If it’s absolutely necessary to mingle with large animals when operating gates, provide a safety zone for yourself by having a post situated where it will prevent the gate from being forced flat against an immovable object like a barn wall or corral panel. I know of two people that were mashed and killed when cows were crowded against a gate, trapping them between the gate and a wall. Small children or frail adults are equally at risk even with small animals like sheep.

If at all possible, install latches on gates that lock automatically when the gate is closed. You don’t want to be fumbling with a chain or baling wire for even a second when an animal can change direction and force the gate open in half that time. Many automatic locking latches have the ability to be opened remotely with a pull rope. These latches provide the opportunity to open or close gates in a safe area away from the animals. Most times animals don’t intend to hurt you; you just happen to be in the way of where they are going. Regardless of their intentions, your funeral is going to cost the same.

Want To Chute Unruly Sheep?

Chutes or working alleys are great, but to be functional, animals need to go in as well as come out.

To facilitate animal entry, I installed windows that make the exit end of the chute much brighter than the entrance. However, I hadn’t gone quite far enough with the light vs. dark business. Getting animals to enter the solid sided chute was quite difficult until I painted the interior of it white. That helped a lot but I overlooked something very important. I have a door located mid-way through the chute that can be swung inward, diverting an individual animal from the chute into a holding pen. I had failed to paint the outside of the door so it was still dark colored. Anytime I opened the door to cut out an animal, the dark side flashed against the chute’s white interior and animals immediately stopped dead in their tracks. Animals don’t necessarily react to what they see, but instead react to sudden movement or changes in light. So, it was back to the old paint bucket. After painting the outside of the door white, I successfully eliminated that clog in the sheep pipeline and I can now cut animals out without them ever breaking their stride.

Mr. Kirchhoff's long-distance gate linkage glides smoothly on a support with a roller-skate wheel.
Mr. Kirchhoff’s long-distance gate linkage glides smoothly on a support with a roller-skate wheel.

Don’t forget that sheep have a very effective reverse gear and when in the chute, they will back up with the slightest provocation. Believe me; everything comes to a screeching halt when some idiot sheep throws it in reverse.

I had to install an animal “check valve” or gate at the entrance of the chute to keep everyone in the chute going the right direction. To operate the gate, I have a pipe running the full length of the chute, riding on roller skate wheels. It’s connected to the gate with a pivoting linkage. This allows me to open or close the gate from anywhere alongside the chute or in the holding area where animals are. My next project is to connect the “cutting door” mentioned earlier to a remote linkage, allowing me to operate it from the holding area also.

Gates & Dividers-Solid Or Slatted?

The answer to that question is “It all depends.” Here again, you need to think like a sheep.

Sheep are herd animals and if you want them to move toward other animals use slatted panels or cattle panels so they can see their friends through the openings. If you don’t want them going with their friends, have walls or gates solid, because-like windows-if a sheep can see through it, they want to go through it.

Heavy gauge metal roofing makes good solid panel dividers.
Heavy gauge metal roofing makes good solid panel dividers.

For solid dividers, I like heavy gauge, 39-inch, 5-rib metal roofing placed horizontally with a 2X6 above this. The roofing has deep ribs which makes it very strong when attached to the “in” or “sheep” side of the post. If using the lighter 29 gauge roofing, you’ll need horizontal supports behind it. Be sure to use plenty of posts for support because 50 ewes all pushing in the same direction could have taken down the Berlin wall years before people got around to it. Also be sure the wall’s high enough to deter even the most romantic ram. Believe me, a ram in the mood can leap over a 42-inch solid panel and be in with ewes before you even get the gate latched.

Speaking of jumping, my Katahdins aren’t pets and therefore aren’t exactly what you’d call docile. On more than one occasion I’ve thought I had a yearling cornered when she half climbed, half leaped over the top of a 54-inch high cattle panel, so never underestimate a determined sheep.

Working Equipment: Make It Quiet And Easy

Remember what I said about your comfort and the animals’ comfort being one and the same? The greatest fault I have with many cattle systems is noise. The noise generated by some large animal squeeze chutes is deafening when metal on metal slams, clangs, bangs and every other adjective in between. I’m positive it hurts the animals’ ears because it does mine and I’m even used to my daughter’s incessant chatter.

Excessive noise only worsens the “wild eyed, bushy tailed” phenomena livestock exhibit when being worked. Whether you buy or build your own facilities, make quietness of operation a top priority. Something as simple as slipping a little automotive heater hose over the offending part can be an amazingly effective silencer. Do all you can to keep metal from striking metal whether it’s using worn out round baler belting, sections of a car tire, wooden blocks, PVC pipe or what ever you have handy. Just remember that it doesn’t have to be pretty to be effective.

Ease of operation is another blessing. Here I’m talking about anything to make things work or move smoother and easier. It may be as simple as a can of WD-40, or more complex, with pulleys and counter weights.

Pulleys and counterweights keep heavy doors from crashing down on sheep's backs.
Pulleys and counterweights keep heavy doors from crashing down on sheep’s backs.

I have a vertical sliding door on an outside wall for loading trailers, and another smaller one at the end of the working chute. One is probably 3X5 feet and rather heavy, while the other is one half-inch plywood, 1X2 feet and fairly light. Both ride on garage door rollers and track, are operated with a rope and pulleys and have an appropriate amount of counter weight to ensure ease of operation. Having the counterweight located inside a vertical plastic sewer pipe allows it to function but keeps it from harm’s way when it’s accessible to animals. An added benefit of the counter weight on the chute door is that if it is dropped onto the back of an animal going through, it won’t cause a spinal injury like a heavy door would. Through a series of pulleys, I’ve located the end of the rope for operating the loading door near to the rear of the holding pen. When opening the door with this setup, I never have to walk through or in front of the group of animals. Staying at the rear of the group prevents sending mixed signals as to which way I want them to go. My philosophy is you don’t want to be in the same place that you want the animals to be because if you are, they won’t be.

In the “handy-and-easy” department, on the wall opposite the working chute I attached a length of metal house gutter. This provides a handy place to locate such things as vaccine bottles, syringes, ear tags and taggers. I can place and retrieve an object in the gutter while working with an animal without ever taking a step. An old mailbox located above the gutter provides a clean, secure place to store ear tags, needles and syringes.

Gutter and mailbox next to chute (right) keep tools and supplies handy and safe.
Gutter and mailbox next to chute (right) keep tools and supplies handy and safe.

Two non-crucial but handy items were the addition of coat hooks and a battery-operated wall clock: During my life I’ve missed the boat many times but I’ve made it a point to never miss supper.

When designing my system, my goal was to get my animals in, keep them calm, work them comfortably and safely and get them out quickly with as little stress as possible on either of us. For example, I can worm 100 lambs in 30 minutes and not stress the animals or myself in any kind of weather and at any time of day or night. Once when a buyer changed arrival times, good lighting inside and out made it possible to ear-tag 75 lambs at midnight, hassle free.

Although it took a generous amount of thinking, planning and building, I now don’t have to wait for help or the right weather to work animals. As a result, I get things like vaccinating done on schedule and don’t miss animals like I used to.

Even though I’ve talked of working groups of lambs larger than the entire flocks of some small operators or hobbyists, don’t think what I’ve mentioned can’t be applied to your own operation. I don’t think it matters whether you’re a hobbyist with 10 ewes or a commercial operator with a thousand, flockmasters shouldn’t have to dread working with their animals. While it’s true life has its share of unpleasantness, working with your animals shouldn’t have to be one of them.

John Kirchhoff runs a low-input operation with 150 registered Katahdin ewes in north central Missouri. Eighteen years of selection, spare use of grain, hay and vets (but full use of rich and poor forages) lets him keep his extra-hardy, mid-sized ewes for only 28 to 30% of University of Missouri state average costs. Mr. Kirchhoff works full time with the local soil and water conservation district. Continually refining his own hands-on operation, he helps his clients avoid his mistakes and get reliably high returns.





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