Stanchion Training Dairy Sheep and Goats

Reader Contribution by Kat Ludlam and Willow Creek Farm
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Sheep/Goat Milking Stanchions

Over the years we have dealt with many personalities in our dairy livestock. Some are very docile and easy to train; others take a lot more patience and work. No matter which personality we are dealing with, we have found that by planning ahead and giving the animal plenty of time to learn, we have successfully trained them all to stand in the stanchion for milking. I will share our strategies for our sheep, though the same training methods work well with goats.

In the weeks leading up to lambing, it is important to increase the ewe’s nutrition to help with growing the lamb, as well as to prevent pregnancy toxemia. This is a perfect time to use food motivation (in the form of the grain you are introducing to their diet) for stanchion training. We begin training about 4 weeks out from the ewe’s due date. That gives us plenty of time to get her confident with the stanchion so she is ready to milk after she lambs. Some ewes move through the training faster than others. If the ewe is very docile and friendly, she can potentially finish the training in just a week’s time. Whereas some of the harder ones to work with can take the whole month. It is important to work with the ewe at her own pace and be patient with her. Getting frustrated and angry will just set into motion her prey instincts and set your training back. Always stay calm and confident with her, and it will help her stay calm and confident.

We do the training each morning at barn chore time while they are still closed in the barn. Throughout the training, the amount of grain they are getting is slowly increasing, starting with just a handful 4 weeks from lambing, and ending with ½ to 1 pound of grain per day the week of lambing, depending on the ewe’s body condition.

4 Weeks from Lambing

The main focus of the first week of training is just getting the ewe used to grain, and helping her see how much she likes it and wants to eat it. For some ewes there is no training involved here – they want the grain and are happy to eat it. For the more skittish ewes this can take some time. We start with just a handful and try to get them to eat it from our hand. If they are too skittish even for that, we put it in a feed dish and give it to them that way. Through the week, as the ewe learns that she likes grain, we work her up to eating it from our hand, and also being willing to follow us around to get it.

3 Weeks from Lambing

Once the ewe wants the grain enough to be willing to eat it from our hand and follow us, then we move on to using the actual stanchion. We lure the ewe with the grain over to the stanchion and then we pour a little on the base of the stanchion itself and let her eat it off. Then we put the bowl of grain in the head catch/grain area and try to lure her to jump up onto the stanchion and put her head in. Some ewes are more than happy to jump right up and stick their head in to eat the grain. But most need some help to get going. If they are nervous about jumping up, we lift their front half up and put their front feet on the stanchion. Most will then jump their back feet up. For those that don’t, we lift their back feet up too.

We remind them of the grain in the head catch by stirring it around or shaking the bowl. Sometimes it is necessary to guide their head in there to eat. Do not catch their head at this point. We want them to gain confidence, and catching their head too soon can scare them. Just let them eat, and when they are done, they can back their head out and jump down. Some ewes can be confused at how to get out, and we will help them pull their head out and turn to jump off. Sometimes they dance around, and can even have one or two legs fall off the stanchion as they try to figure out how to maneuver in this new environment. We stay calm and quiet and help them up or down as needed.

Our most skittish ewes have been a handful at this stage, or really, two armfuls. We have to pick them up completely and set them on the stanchion, manually put their head through to eat, and then pull their head out and physically guide them off the stanchion. But whether it is an easy ewe who is happy to jump up and eat, or one that needs us to lift her at first, the goal of this stage is that the ewe will walk to the stanchion, jump up, and put her head in the catch to eat the grain, then jump off on her own.

2 Weeks from Lambing

When the ewe is getting onto the stanchion on her own, or with minimal help, and eating out of the head catch area, it is time to move onto catching her head. We close the catch and let her eat her grain. Most don’t even realize they are caught until they are finished eating. When they realize it, they usually have one of two reactions, they either stand still and just wait, or they freak out. We never release the head catch while they are freaking out — only if they are standing quietly. As they are freaking out, they might have a leg or two fall off the stanchion, or they might try to lay down. If they do, just lift them back up into position and continue waiting for them to calm down.

As soon as they are calm, even just for 5 seconds, release the catch. Over time, we increase the time that they are standing calmly before we release them until they will stand calmly waiting for a full minute. If they are released while freaking out, they are learning that freaking out gets them out of the “scary” situation, and they are liable to get injured. It is important not to encourage a fear flight state of mind. By waiting it out, you are keeping them safer, and desensitizing them to their fear of the head catch. They learn that to be released they need to stay calm.

1 Week from Lambing

Once the ewe can get on the stanchion, put her head in the catch, and stand calmly caught, we are in the home stretch of training. Throughout the whole training process, we have been petting and touching the ewe on the stanchion. Now we move to handling her udder and prepping her for milking. While she is on the stanchion eating her grain, head caught, we talk calmly and pet down her side and legs. If it is a doe, we will use a brush on their body and legs to clean them off. Next, we get her used to having her udder touched all over.

After she is fine with touching, we bring up a wash rag and get her used to having her udder washed. If we plan to use a milk machine, we turn that on while we are handling her udder to get her used to the noise. We do not handle her teats or milk her at this point, we just get her used to her udder being handled and the noise of the machine. Once she settles with all the different stimuli, she is stanchion trained and ready to be milked after lambing.

Ewes during stanchion training

In the day or two prior to lambing, her udder can get very sensitive and she may kick or be upset by handling of it. It is important to get the training done before this time, and not handle her udder when it is sensitive so as not to encourage kicking.

In the early days of milking, we usually bring her baby with her to the stanchion to help her relax and feel confident. You can read more about how we handle milking our ewes in my Milk-Sharing post.With planning and patience, even the most skittish ewe or doe can be trained to stand in the stanchion for milking.

Kat Ludlam is a high-altitude homesteader and owner of Willow Creek Farm in the Colorado Rockies, where she breeds landrace sheep, chickens, and crops accustomed to elevation. Check out Kat’s custom fiber-processing business, Willow Creek Fiber Mill, and read all of Kat’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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