Welfare issues for sheep in feedlots, particularly where sheep are housed indoors in sheds, include social stress, limited space allowance and ability to express natural behaviours, lameness and other health problems. The RSPCA believes that sheep must be provided with freedom of movement and the ability to satisfy their behavioural, social, and physiological preferences and needs which include grazing, resting and ruminating (chewing cud).
What are sheep feedlots?
Feedlots are yarded areas where sheep (mainly lambs), that have been raised on pasture in paddocks, are then held in groups in close confinement for a period before they are slaughtered. The sheep are fed a grain-based diet supplied mechanically or by hand in feed bins or troughs. Feedlots are used to ensure that sheep reach a specific weight (i.e. are ‘finished’) before slaughter and to provide consistent meat quality (e.g. taste and texture) and quantity to meet market demand. Feedlots may also be used during poor seasonal conditions (e.g. drought) to feed animals and ensure they reach market weight.
- Outdoor sheep feedlots contain sheep in paddocks or outdoor yards; this is the most prevalent type of sheep feedlot in Australia.
- Indoor sheep feedlots are where sheep are fully housed indoors in sheds. There are specific animal welfare issues related to indoor feedlots which are discussed separately below.
Outdoor sheep feedlots
The welfare of animals in outdoor feedlots is, in part, determined by the design and management of the facility while other factors influencing sheep welfare are inherent to the feedlot environment. Feedlots must only be managed by trained and competent staff. Industry has developed recommendations for intensive sheep feeding systems (National Procedures and Guidelines for Intensive Sheep and Lamb Feeding Systems) and minimum requirements are available within the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Sheep.
In feedlots, sheep are kept in large groups and may have been mixed with unfamiliar sheep. Sheep are social herd animals and they prefer to socialise with familiar animals and may show aggressive behaviour towards sheep with which they are not familiar . Aggressive behaviour such as stamping, kicking, head-butting or rearing may be evident when sheep are mixed with unfamiliar sheep , as occurs in feedlots or when animals are housed in large groups. Being social animals, sheep can become stressed when isolated from their mob, so separation, e.g. for treatment, should be kept to a minimum. Sheep are generally fearful of new surroundings as well as unfamiliar feed, unfamiliar people or noises. Fear can be reduced by familiarising sheep with some aspects of the feedlot environment particularly if the sheep are transported off site, for example, familiarising sheep with people, equipment and feed.
Heat or cold stress
Sheep can be exposed to heat or cold stress if feedlots offer no or inadequate protection from the weather. Sheep will seek shade when it is available and outdoor feedlots must provide shade to meet this need in a manner that does not compromise the ability of the ground to dry out following wet weather. Feeding sheep in the cooler parts of the day and providing cool water helps to prevent/alleviate heat stress. Sheep are often shorn prior to feedlot entry, mainly to ensure that there is little wool on the animal which would devalue the skin post slaughter. However, enough wool must be left to protect sheep from cold stress or heat stress and feedlots must provide shelter to protect sheep from prevailing winds.
Sheep are susceptible to foot or hoof problems if the surface on which they stand is not fully supportive of the sheep’s hoof or if the ground or surface on which they are standing is otherwise inappropriate. To avoid foot problems, good drainage and a suitable hard standing area are important. Diet, particularly excess consumption of dietary energy or protein, may cause digestive problems (acidosis) which in turn may result in laminitis, a painful foot condition.
Sheep in feedlots are generally confined to a smaller area then they would have access to when grazing in extensive paddocks. Sheep tend to carry out similar behaviours at the same time as others in the mob, e.g. feeding, drinking or resting. There must be sufficient space within the feedlot to allow all animals to access feed and water without undue competition. To allow proper rest and encourage rumination, all animals must be able to lie down at the same time and with sufficient space to get up unhindered by other animals. Because of the strong dominance hierarchies within a flock, sheep must be given sufficient space to avoid aggressive encounters.
Feeding and general health
Feedlot diets are different to the pasture that sheep would normally eat and the transition to a feedlot diet (e.g. a grain-based feed) can result in digestive disorders and other health problems in sheep. Management of the feedlot must follow the advice of veterinarians and nutritionists experienced with feedlot animals. Sheep must be gradually introduced to grain or other feedlot diets (preferably before they enter the feedlot) and feed must be formulated to avoid disease and digestive problems, e.g. acidosis, rather than resorting to use of antibiotics to prevent lactic acid production in the rumen. Placement of feeders must minimise disturbance from people or machinery to help reduce fear in sheep. Sheep must be checked at least daily to identify and treat sick or injured animals, including animals with feet problems. Facilities must be available to allow affected sheep to be ‘drafted’ or removed from the mob with minimal stress. ‘Shy feeders’, i.e. sheep who have not adjusted to the feedlot diet, must be removed from the feedlot and returned to natural grazing with monitoring to check their recovery. Excessive dust levels in the feedlot environment predispose sheep to ‘pink eye’, a painful eye condition that can result in blindness if not treated. Dust levels must be managed to reduce the incidence of eye issues.
Sheep feedlots, where sheep are fully housed in large sheds without access to the outdoors, pose a range of additional welfare concerns.
Sheep are naturally fearful of things that are new, meaning that sheep accustomed to grazing in a paddock may become stressed upon entering the unfamiliar environment of an indoor feedlot. To help reduce stress, sheep at pasture must be familiarised with the feed that they will be expected to eat while in the feedlot before entry so that they become accustomed to the new feed. Indoor feedlots provide no opportunity for sheep to carry out explorative or play behaviours. Even when outdoors, sheep have been shown to interact with environmental enrichment such as logs and bales ; therefore, it is important that environmental enrichment is provided for sheep housed indoors (e.g. providing sheep with balls and plastic drums ).
Sheep in indoor feedlots may be elevated off the ground and required to stand on mesh flooring. Sheep’s preference to move their weight to the front of the foot when standing on mesh flooring, results in uneven weight-bearing and uneven wear of the hoof, with the weight-bearing point becoming thinner and thinner . As a result, sheep become lame and reluctant to bear weight on the affected hoof. Mesh also provides insufficient support for sheep to lie comfortably  and is unsuitable for standing for long periods. In indoor feedlots, flooring must be appropriate for the species to avoid poor health or welfare. Research has shown that sheep housed indoors on straw bedding ate more and had better growth rates than sheep on mesh flooring because of the discomfort experienced by the sheep standing on mesh . However, when straw or other bedding is used in indoor or covered sheds, it must be well managed, kept dry and free of ammonia build-up to ensure sheep comfort. Sheep who are lame or non-weight bearing must be removed to a special ‘hospital’ pen and treated promptly.
Space allowance in indoor feedlots is often restricted to an area per sheep that only allows the animal to lie down on their sternum. This is insufficient to allow sheep to move around freely or provide sheep with the opportunity to exercise and rest comfortably.
Indoor housing (sheds)
Indoor feedlots that are poorly ventilated will affect sheep comfort, e.g. through ammonia build-up when faeces accumulate, increased temperature and excessive dust. Fully enclosed indoor feedlots provide no natural light and for sheep accustomed to normal diurnal rhythms with most activity carried out during the day, artificial light, particularly if not turned off at night, may result in disturbed activity, rest and sleep patterns.
What is the RSPCA’s view?
Indoor feedlots, where animals are fully housed in sheds, present a stressful environment for sheep and some serious welfare issues including insufficient space, inadequate flooring, and no opportunity for sheep to graze, exercise, or rest comfortably.
Sheep must be provided with freedom of movement and the ability to satisfy their behavioural, social, and physiological preferences and needs. The space provided to animals in feedlots must not impede normal movement, normal behaviours or postures, or negatively affect the comfort of the animals. RSPCA Australia believes that sheep must be able to graze outdoors with the opportunity to access pasture for grazing, resting, and ruminating (chewing cud).
Sheep held in feedlots must be checked at least daily to identify and treat sick or injured animals – this includes treating sheep who are lame or non-weight bearing.
 MLA (2007) Best practice for production feeding of lambs: A review of the literature. Final report SCSB.091 V1/ B.SCC.0091. Meat & Livestock Australia Limited, Sydney, NSW.
 Wemelsfelder F, Farish M (2004) Qualitative categories for the interpretation of sheep welfare. Animal Welfare 13:261-268.
 ARRP (2010) Animal Research Review Panel Guideline 23: Guidelines for the Housing of Sheep in Scientific Institutions. Emergencies and Animal Welfare, Industry and Investment NSW, Orange, NSW.