By: Taylor Dilts
Another summer, and another successful docking in the books. For those who don’t know what docking is, let me explain. Docking is the process of removing the tail from an animal- in this case, lambs. But where I grew up, docking meant much more than just cutting off a wooly tail. Docking is an annual summer event that encompasses the entire process of ear-tagging, vaccinating, castrating or ear-marking, cutting the tail, and branding of every lamb on the ranch- a daunting task when there are thousands of them out in the pasture. However, I have learned to thoroughly love this laborious operation. It has a way of bringing people back year after year to enjoy the hard work and good company.
To begin, docking at our ranch is a three day ordeal that requires a crew of at least 12 people for everything to run smoothly. Family, friends, and those brave enough to accept the invitation arrive to the ranch the evening before and catch up over food and drinks, setting the tone for the good-natured hard work that we will all be doing over the next few days. Though it is hard work, I cannot emphasize enough that docking is also a social event- one of the rare times on the ranch where people other than those who live and work there every day get to experience the “simple” life (ha!).
At this juncture I must divulge the nature of the aspect of docking that causes many to cringe- castrating. We castrate our lambs the good ol’ fashioned way- biting. Yes, with our teeth. While this method has drawn a lot of criticism, the fact remains that it is not only the fastest and easiest way to do it, it is also the most humane and economical as well. Even Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe can attest to this fact. With biting, lambs are subjected to the least amount of pain and can be moved rapidly through the process, causing the least amount of stress on the animal, and expediting the work for the docking crew laboring in the hot sun. In contrast to the generally accepted “humane” method of using rubber bands, lambs that have been bitten cease bleeding after a few minutes, and do not have to endure the stress that having a tight rubber band cutting off the circulation to their scrotum and tail induces. Instead, these lambs are able to walk, run, and frolic moments after being docked, as opposed to suffering for days until the testicles and tail fall off.
With that said, I will now go through the entire docking process step-by-step. Please keep in mind that this is only the process we follow at our ranch, and may not be the same as other ranchers.
Once the crew has arrived at the corrals where the sheep have been gathered, everyone begins setting up the docking pen- unloading portable steel panels from a trailer and hooking them together to form a smaller corral that we can load groups of sheep into from the larger herd. The “docking board” is a specially designed panel that has a flat surface roughly 4 inches wide on the top for the people holding the lambs are able to rest them on during the procedure. This panel is arranged at the center, and every lamb in the bunch will pass over it by the end. After the docking pen is set up, we load a small group of ewes and lambs into it from the larger group in the corrals. The sheep are closed in, and the docking begins!
There are 5 main jobs at docking: Tagger, Vaccinator, Cutter, Brander, and Holder. Each job is pretty self explanatory; the Holders go through the pens of sheep picking up the lambs and taking them through the docking line, which begins with the Tagger. The Tagger(s) put the appropriate tag in the lamb’s ear depending on whether it is male or female. Next in line is the Vaccinator, who uses a small tool to scratch the inside of the lamb’s ear and then brush on the vaccine to prevent Sore Mouth Infection. The lamb is then moved down the line to one of the two Cutters. It is the Cutters job to either castrate (if the lamb is male), or ear-mark (if the lamb is female) and then cut the tail off of the lamb. Finally, the lamb is brought to the Brander, who stamps the appropriate brand in sheep paint on the lamb’s back before it is set free on the other side of the pen.
The testicles are spit into a bucket to be cleaned and eaten later, and the tails are tossed into piles behind the Cutters so they can be counted when all is said and done. After all of the lambs in the docking pen have been put over the board, the ewes are counted as they are turned out to re-join their offspring. The pen is then loaded again and the process is repeated until the entire group of sheep has been turned out of the corrals. The groups range in number usually from about 300-500 head of ewes. Once a group is finished, the tails are counted and divided by the number of ewes counted in order to calculate the lamb-crop percentage for that particular group. The docking pen is disassembled and loaded on to the trailer to be transported to the corrals where the next group of sheep has been gathered.
As I said before, docking is also a social event. There is something about spending all day together in the hot sun, getting blood in your face, dirt in your eyes, and sweat down your back that brings people together like nothing else, and at the end of the day everyone is glad to sit down and enjoy a well-earned meal and a cold beer and revel in each other’s company. So Cheers! To hard work, good people, and lamb balls.