Selecting a sheep handler


Sheep-handling machines came into widespread use during the slump in wool prices in the early 1970s, and since that time many producers have sought to use sheep-handling equipment in an effort to reduce costs.

The principal advantages of a sheep handler are:

  • reduced labour costs—jobs such as crutching, which would otherwise be carried out by a contractor, can be performed by existing farm labour;
  • increased efficiency of existing farm labour in operations such as crutching, foot inspection and paring, drenching and vaccinating;
  • reduced physical effort or skill required of operators.

The guidelines presented here are intended to assist producers in selecting and using a sheep handler.

Types of sheep handlers

There is a range of design types in sheep handlers, which vary in complexity, construction and cost. There are three basic modes of operation:

  1. Race to cradle units - the sheep move up an inclined blind race with the aid of a decoy sheep in front of the catching box. When standing in the catching box the animal is pulled or rolled sideways over a ledge into a cradle where it is held on its back, using various types of restraints (e.g. chain and slot), ready for the operator.
  2. Rollover units - the animal approaches the machine confined in a single-file race that ends with the sheep standing beneath a caliper-type mechanism. When engaged, this mechanism captures the animal by squeezing it at the hips and shoulders. In a second action the capture unit rotates around a horizontal axle which inverts the sheep, presenting it to the operator. This design lends itself to a counterbalanced dual-sheep design which reduces operator effort and improves the flow of sheep.
  3. Conveyor or elevator units - these use a more advanced design in which the sheep approach the machine in a single-file race where they are picked up between a pair of moving belts or slats arranged in a V-shaped profile so that the sheep is moved along with its feet off the ground, and its body restrained by its own weight between the V-profile belts. Sheep so restrained can be inverted easily by holding them under the neck as the machine moves them past the operator, achieving a gentle rolling action which ends with the sheep on its back.

Each design has its own strengths and weaknesses, being suited to particular applications.

Selecting a sheep handler

The sheep handler has become a common item of plant for many sheep producers, and considerable cost savings can be made by their use. But these benefits can be negated by an inappropriate choice of design for your application, or by poor installation. The first step in selecting a handler is to be sure of what you wish to achieve with the machine:

  • Do you need the machine for crutching, foot inspection and paring, general husbandry, or for some combination of uses?
  • Is your application specialised, such as AI? If so, what do you require the machine to do for you?
  • Do you wish to have more than one operator working on the sheep at one time in a production line arrangement? If so, the design choice will be important.

Table 1 rates the types of handlers for various applications:

Table 1
Type of design Crutch Wig Ring pizzle Udder inspection

Foot inspection and paring

General husbandry(a) Classing Operator effort required
Race to cradle *** ** *** *** ** * * most
Rollover ** ** ** ** *** * * moderate
Conveyor or elevator ** *** ** *** ** *** ** least

* Not well suited.
** Can perform operation (may need attachments).
*** Well suited to application.
(a) Includes operations like drenching, vaccinating and mouthing.

Most sheep handlers are not suitable for taking mid-side wool samples; however, conveyor-type handlers can be used for taking wool samples from hip or pin bone sites.

Integrating the handler

The sheep handler should be considered as part of the overall sheep-handling facilities on the property. Many handlers fail to achieve their full efficiency because they are not effectively incorporated into the yard or shed system.

For the handler to operate efficiently, the yards must supply a continuous flow of stock to the machine. The operator should have easy access to the sheep storage and forcing area to maintain the flow of sheep. Access for dogs is also important, but the approaching sheep must be screened from the operator and dogs.

Usually, the yards or shed will need to be modified to give satisfactory results. The usefulness of the installation can be greatly enhanced if shelter is provided by a skillion, or by placing the unit in the shearing shed. This allows work to continue in adverse climatic conditions, and helps to maintain the comfort of the operator, which will mean more consistent quality of work. In-shed installation is particularly recommended for crutching because wool handling is simplified by better access to bins and pressing facilities. In-shed installation also has the advantage of reducing contrasts of light, which assists the flow of sheep.

Options and extras

After determining how the handler is to be incorporated into the handling facilities, the choice of additional attachments must be considered. Many manufacturers offer auxiliary equipment to support their handlers in the form of feed-up races, restraint systems and other optional attachments to the basic unit.

When considering these extras, assess whether the items are necessary for the system and operations you have in mind.

As a guide to the selection of accessories and features, the following are suggested:

Feed races

  • Sheeted sides are better than open sides.
  • Tapered sides are better than straight, vertical sides.
  • Antibacking devices, for example hock bars, are worthwhile considering.
  • Curved races which turn through 180 degrees are better than straight races.
  • The floor surface should provide sufficient grip.


  • The operating height of the unit should be adjustable to reduce back strain and operator fatigue.
  • The unit should be adjustable in width, and in some designs, length, according to the size of sheep.
  • If you are left-handed, either the machine should be adaptable for your use or it should be possible to make special units.


  • Leg restraints may be needed for crutching.
  • Modified restraints or attachments may be needed for particular operations, for example mulesing, or for particular classes of sheep, for example weaners.
  • Mountings may be needed for shearing or crutching plants.
  • Flexible down-tubes are recommended.
  • Controls for shearing equipment should be positive and easily accessible.
  • Some means of handling crutchings is needed to avoid loss or contamination of wool.
  • Storage close to the unit should be provided for tools and equipment.


The usefulness of a handler is often judged by the throughput achieved in a day. This is not always a reliable yardstick, as many factors can affect throughput—factors that do not reflect on the capability of the machine. High throughput is not necessarily associated with high-quality work.

When comparing the throughput using a sheep handler, say for a crutching operation, with the throughput using conventional methods, the time attributed to the throughput should not include the time involved in bringing in sheep from the paddock and returning them to the paddock in the evening.

The following recommendations will help to ensure reasonable throughput and quality of output:

  1. The unit should be incorporated into an efficient sheep-handling system capable of delivering sheep with a minimum of effort and time.
  2. The operator needs to be motivated to maintain work rate and quality. The best way to do this is to provide a safe and reasonably comfortable working environment for the operator. This requires:
    1. a machine that is easy to operate, without excessive demands on the strength or endurance of the operator;
    2. a machine that is adjustable, to avoid strain or injury to the operator's back, hands or limbs;
    3. shelter from the weather;
    4. close and easy access to tools, equipment and supplies.

Attention to these details will not guarantee a fast throughput, but it will create a system in which the quality of work can be consistently good.

Further advice on selecting a handler and designing its incorporation into existing facilities can be obtained from your local Sheep and Wool Officer.


The current edition of this Agnote was reviewed by Bob Marchant, District Livestock Officer, Armidale.