Fecal sampling

Today’s blog will likely make non-shepherds wonder why on earth we’d care about the hows and whens of fecal sampling. Don’t sheep produce enough manure that this isn’t an issue? After all, each sheep (100-200 pounds) produces 4-8 pounds of manure per day! Surely I should be able to grab some of that and have my sample!

Let me tell you, as someone who has been collecting a lot of fecal samples this year, it isn’t as easy as it sounds! In order to get a good idea of the parasite load of our current flock of ram lambs, I selected three boys to monitor this summer: Poet, Putty, and Perrier. Parasitologists recommend that we sample 10-15% of our group, and these boys represent about 15% of the ram lambs. These three were not randomly chosen, however. I selected Putty because he was the most anemic at the time I first sampled in July; and Perrier was a good example of what was then typical of the group. Poet ended up being sampled because he got two different dewormers when we first brought the ram lambs in off the fields. I thought he might give us some insight into how the various dewormers are working in our flock.

Whenever I talk to my vet about the parasite issues we are facing this year, he immediately asks when we last sampled our boys, so I’ve been doing this quite a bit recently. The process is fairly simple: label a Ziploc sandwich bag with the name and number (one for each of the boys), then follow them around in their shelter and small outdoor area until they volunteer a sample. I use the bag as a kind of glove, turning it inside-out on my hand so that I can scoop up the sample, and then turn the bag rightside-out and seal it.

The problem is knowing exactly when to follow them around. I have found that the time of day is critical. One day, I followed all three boys for literally hours right after feeding and never did get a sample. I’ve tried morning and evening. I’ve tried just before eating and just after. I’ve pretty much tried every time slot imaginable, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I found the ideal time to sample my boys. I realized that the key is that they need to eat and then digest. I feed them both hay and grain at about 9:30 a.m., when I do my morning chores. They polish off the grain first and then work on the hay for an hour or two. After that, they go and cud awhile, breaking up the bigger pieces of their feed so they’ll digest it more easily. As they lie there and cud, they get sleepy and, eventually, it’s afternoon naptime. The sun is warm, their bellies are full, and there’s nothing better than a little early afternoon siesta. By this time, enough food has been chewed that digestion is working — and that’s when I strike!

When I went up yesterday, about four hours after they had finished their grain, they were resting or napping around the shelter. I found Poet fast asleep and poked him right next to his tail stub to wake him. Poet took only a second before he jumped up, immediately dropping a volunteer sample into the straw! I then went to snoozing Perrier and did the same thing. He, too, jumped up and left a small trail of pellets as he ran off! Putty was much deeper asleep. I needed to poke at him a few times, but when he finally opened his eyes, he was quick to get to his feet — and again left a sample in his wake. Bingo! Three samples in about five minutes!

My three samples are on their way for fecal egg counts (FECs), a reflection of the parasite load that each of the boys currently carries. We will be trying a new-for-us dewormer this week that has been around for a very long time. We hope that it will do a good job of eliminating the parasites that we’ve been fighting in our fields this year. The only way to determine how effective the dewormer is against the parasites in our sheep is to get both pre-deworming and post-deworming FECs. The percentage of egg reduction from pre- to post- is the kill rate of that dewormer.

It looks like I’ll continue to have sample collections in my future, at least for a while, so knowing the ideal time and method to sample is a huge time-saver! The pre-deworming sample is finished and shipped. I hope to deworm tomorrow or Friday and then sample again next week to determine our kill rate with this new dewormer. Let’s hope for the best!

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  • Erika says:

    Where do you send your samples? I guess the boys wouldn’t appreciate you getting a sample from them yourself!

    • Dee says:

      We send them to this place where you get an actual count of the different types of parasites. My vet does them, but it costs more and they only give me a three unit scale: lots, some, or none as far as eggs in the sample go. We have now gone beyond that level and need a detailed break-down of exactly what we are dealing with. I know that the main problem is Haemonchus contortus (Barber pole worm), but I need to see whether we have any other parasites in our fecal samples to determine how to treat now – and that’s why we are now sending to the less expensive but more detailed testing. The only downside to this testing is that it takes a while to get results (days to a week), whereas the results from my vet take only hours.

  • Erika says:

    Thanks, this sounds perfect.

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