lamb tail length

Lamb tail length: area for opportunity vs issues

Is the NZ sheep industry docking lamb tails at the right length to maximise benefits from a productivity, animal welfare and economic perspective?

This is the question being asked by a Sustainable Farming Fund project co-funded by Alliance Group Limited, UK supermarket J Sainsbury and Beef + Lamb New Zealand. AbacusBio Consultant, Jo Kerslake is managing the project with the support of an industry steering committee including NZ sheep farming representatives and tailing and shearing contractors.

“The project will focus on both the opportunities and consequences of leaving tails at different lengths” says Jo. “It will address potential productivity and economic gains and potential welfare consequences, such as dag accumulation and fly-strike risk, which are both a major cost to the NZ sheep industry”.

The three year project is being launched this year and aims to quantify current docking practices as well as understand the main drivers behind farmers’ docking decisions. As part of this, the group will quantify the impact that docking at different tail lengths has on the productive capacity and welfare of the lamb, and the economic return to the farmer.

Opportunities to enhance production and welfare of lambs by not docking or docking at longer lengths may exist for some farming systems. These opportunities have arisen through improvements in our understanding of the effects that nutrition and parasite management have on dag formation, improved management by the removal of dags through crutching and the genetic selection of animals for faster growth rates and fewer dags. Currently, some NZ farmers leave tails intact on terminal lambs destined for early slaughter to avoid the perceived growth check associated with stress from docking – some also believe that this may increase the muscularity of hind quarters and reduce carcase fatness.

John Lindsay, Alliance Group Director and chair of the steering committee for this research, said that on his own home farm, he has moved to a policy of leaving tails on lambs bound for slaughter. “We started by leaving a few single-born lambs with tails and now 5500 lambs are left un-tailed. A few extra strokes are required at crutching for lambs that are still on the farm in February but this is not a significant amount of money”, he said. “This whole exercise is about seeing if there are any potential gains for farmers”, where John wants farmers to be in a position of choice on the tail docking issue, not under mandatory requirements.

John is also interested in the opportunities that may exist to increase revenue for farmers/processors if tails are longer and generating additional product for rendering or sale as a commodity. Murray Brown, Alliance Marketing Manager, said lamb tails could become a product for the future, “we have had interest from China and South East Asia, where any protein sourced from the animal has value.”

NZ sheep farmers are currently vulnerable to concerns from international markets in regard to the actual length of tail, due to the lack of empirical data around these issues. International retailers are now requesting scientifically-led and evidence-based information which can be used to assure their customers that certain management practices, such as docking, are justified. With NZ lamb occupying the top end of the meat product market, it is important that we ensure that it is delivered to a high specification.

Murray Behrent, General Livestock Manager of Alliance Group said that, “UK retailers suggested that our lambs could be left with longer tails, so we thought that we would take a proactive approach, and get some independent research done, so that farmers were not left vulnerable to criticism from international markets”. “By addressing potential welfare concerns we will ensure that we retain our position in the international market as leaders in the supply of premium quality, ethically and sustainably produced agricultural food products.” “Alliance is not looking to penalise suppliers on tail length. The trial is all about giving farmers information so that they can make informed decisions on tail length best suited for their farming practice and environment; however, it will still be important that all docking meets minimum tail length requirements.”

The first on-farm field trials will be carried out in Southland and will look at the effects of different tail lengths on lambs growth, carcase weight and yield. Another two trials will be carried out in Canterbury and Tasman and will look at the effects of different tail lengths on productivity, economic return to the farmers and lamb welfare. Jo says she is expecting wide interest from throughout New Zealand, as tailing practices influence all sheep farmers.

The initial results of the research are expected to be released in June 2014 with final results published in June 2015.