The Hidden Worm That Can Kill Your Goats & Sheep

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The Hidden Worm That Can Kill Your Goats & Sheep

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I lived in ignorant bliss for years. Like many keepers of small ruminants up north, I was more complacent than I should have been about the possibility of parasites. As a general rule of thumb, these organisms have been more of a problem in southern locations for longer than they have in the north, but are gradually making their way to all regions of the country.

About six months after I purchased two doelings and integrated them into my herd, a visiting animal health expert noticed some worrisome symptoms in one of the young goats and took fecal samples back to her office to examine under a microscope. The next day, she called me with the results: the animal was loaded with barber pole worm.

I had never even heard of barber pole worms, and I set about learning all I could about it by asking other goat owners, seeking information from animal health experts, and searching online.

What Are They?  

Barber pole worm, or Haemonchus contortus, is a parasitic organism which thrives in the abomasum—or last stomach—of ruminants. It is highly contagious, often deadly, and once contracted is nearly impossible to eradicate.

Research revealed that my first order of business was saving the life of my goat. How-to’s varied widely among all the sources I consulted, many of them directly contradicting one another on everything from types of medications to frequency and dosage. It was scary and confusing, to say the least.

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A person in my goat network took the time to tell me the story of what worked for her, and I believe her help is the reason my goat survived. She recommended I use a specific type of anthelmintic—the scientific term for a chemical de-wormer—called levamisole hydrochloride.   The information I found online supported her advice. Levamisole is available only via mail order in my state, but the lady happened to have some on hand and offered it to me at her cost.

Lest the treatment described above sounds like a panacea, it most assuredly is not. Different drugs are more or less effective by region, by farm, by animal, and by a whole host of other factors. But if a treatment worked at a farm nearby, that is a good place to start.

Before continuing with information about barber pole worm, it is worth noting that I am not a veterinarian. Any knowledge I have of animal health and parasites is gained through my own research and experience as a goat owner, and should never be taken as advice in lieu of consulting an expert.

First, a few barber pole basics. It is the adult worms, striped like a barber pole, which take hold in the stomachs of ruminants. From there, they lay eggs which are passed out of the animal’s body through its feces. Once on the ground, the eggs develop into larvae and are ingested by ruminants as they graze. Back inside the digestive system, the larvae become adults and the life cycle continues.

Symptoms of Barber Pole Worm

The Hidden Worm That Can Kill Your Goats & Sheep

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Visible symptoms of the possible presence of barber pole worms include diarrhea, hanging tail, dull coat, lethargy and depression. It is important to remember that these signs can be indicative of other maladies, as well, so while these symptoms indicate that something is wrong, it is not always barber pole worm.

If barber pole worm progresses, edema—fluid buildup in body tissues—sometimes becomes visible, particularly in the face and jaw.

An excellent way to diagnose the presence of stomach worms—of which barber pole worm is a likely candidate—is by determining whether the animal is anemic. This can be achieved using a diagnostic tool called “FAMACHA.” This is basically a chart showing how to compare the colors of the tissue under the lower eyelids of the animal—pink tissue means there is plenty of healthy blood flow and white means anemic—and providing guidelines of when to treat.

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Another excellent diagnostic method is a fecal exam. Veterinarians typically offer this service, but it can be costly and cumbersome for multiple animals and follow-ups. For this reason, many people learn to do it themselves. Examining fecal content is not nearly as off-putting as it sounds.  Training can be attained for little or no money, often from another ruminant owner. My own microscope training was provided to me by the professor who first diagnosed my sick goat, but since that time my state cooperative extension has begun to offer quarterly microscope training workshops.

The expense of owning a good quality microscope can seem daunting, but groups and clubs can potentially share ownership in equipment, giving each member easy access without being solely responsible for cost or storage.

It is important to be aware that fecal exams do not always tell the full story. The presence of parasite eggs in fecal matter does not necessarily correspond exactly with the presence of adult stomach worms. When in doubt, always consult a veterinarian.

It is critical to catch barber pole early. Unchecked, it can be deadly. In late stages it is even possible for the treatment itself to be dangerous because the sudden die-off of parasites can render an animal too compromised to recover.

As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is wise to screen new animals for parasites before putting them in with your existing herd, even when buying high quality stock from a reputable dealer. Once barber pole was present on my farm, the only option from that point forward was to manage it.

Some livestock owners get desirable results by routinely administering anthelmintics to the entire herd or flock. However, current school of thought recommends treating only sick animals. The reason for this is to avoid the risk of creating a medication-resistant super-organism.

Hot to Prevent Barber Pole Worm

When my goat was first diagnosed, I treated my entire herd. It was important at that time to make a complete break in the life cycle of the parasite. I carefully monitored the fecal egg counts after the first dose and treated only sick animals from there on.

Parasite activity is minimal in winter in cold climates. It flares up most in spring and fall, so diligence is most crucial during those seasons. Some individual animals and certain breeds are naturally more resilient, and young stock is generally far more susceptible than are adults. Resilience—the innate ability to thrive in the presence of barber pole worm or avoid getting it at all—is an excellent trait to keep in mind when culling a herd.

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The Hidden Worm That Can Kill Your Goats & Sheep

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Some of the best ways to manage barber pole worm are really more about managing the livestock, pasture and infrastructure. Parasite eggs and larvae thrive best in warm humid conditions, multiply most easily in crowded conditions, are most plentiful close to the ground, and have a more profound effect on less healthy animals. With those facts in mind, good parasite management includes:

  • Keeping indoor quarters clean.
  • Allowing ample space in the most-used paddocks.
  • Rotating pastures and sticking to the highest and driest during damp seasons.
  • Keeping hay and feed up off the ground by using hay and grain feeders.
  • Hanging water buckets on walls to minimize spills and feces contamination.
  • Keeping feed and water containers clean.
  • Providing mid-level browse. Sheep tend to graze and goats prefer browse, but both will eat vegetation higher off the ground if browse is provided. This will help limit the likelihood of the larvae being ingested.
  • Maintaining overall herd health.
  • Staying abreast of any health changes in individual animals and within the overall herd, particularly during seasons when parasites are most prevalent.
  • Doing fecal exams often.
  • Being responsible regarding biosecurity: Use due diligence to prevent yourself and visitors from carrying barber pole worms to other farms.

Two other preventative treatments being increasingly recommended by veterinarians and farmers are copper and tannin. Many sheep and goat owners use copper boluses—capsules filled with copper pellets—as effective treatment. The drawback to these is that they can be challenging to administer, because they need to be shot with a special gun down the animal’s gullet in order to remain intact and not chewed. An easier yet arguably less effective method is to offer free-choice tannin. This is easily found in the bark of softwood trees, but comes with a warning: certain pine trees are toxic to goats and sheep. Pine trees native to my region pose no danger, but that is not the case in all areas of the country. The bark of other trees, most notably cherry, can be toxic, as well. If you are not certain, consult your veterinarian.

No small ruminant farmer wants to have barber pole worm show up in his or her herd, but it is becoming increasingly common in most areas. But with attention to self-education and adoption of careful practices, barber pole worm can be monitored, managed and mitigated.

Have your sheep or goats ever had barber pole worm? Share your advice in the section below:

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Raw Wool: How To Find And Pick The Best Fleece For Your Off-Grid Needs

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Raw Wool: How To Find And Pick The Best Fleece For Your Off-Grid Needs

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Spring is one of the best times to start sourcing wool to bring to your homestead. Shepherds will often shear sheep once or twice per year, and most will do it after lambing, to shed the sheep of their warm winter coats. Look for a shepherd near your homestead. The more local the wool, the better suited it will be to your climate. Once you’ve located a shepherd, make inquiries about the fleece.

Breed Matters

Most sheep in North America are not raised specifically for fiber, as it is not a profitable commodity in many markets. Therefore, wool is often considered a byproduct. Farmers raise sheep with dual (meat and wool) or triple (meat, wool, and milk) purposes, so they can sell the other products.

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When considering what breeds of sheep to look for, consider the wool’s eventual purpose. The breed of a sheep will give you a general idea of its fleece characteristics: staple length (the length of the individual locks), micron count (how fine and soft each fiber is), and crimp (how curly the fiber is). The categories below illustrate the different kinds of fleece, and popular breeds.

1. Hair sheep

Hair sheep produce very heavy fiber and hair, which can be used in some rug applications. Breeds: Katahdin, Barbados and Dorper.

2. Specialty sheep

Many of these sheep are double coated, which means they have a heavy guard hair mixed with the wool. The fleece will need to be carded by hand to remove the hair, or both coats can be used to produce a very heavy weight yarn. The undercoat can be very fine, such as with Shetland sheep. Breeds: Scottish Blackface, California Variegated Mutant, Icelandic, Jacob and Shetland.

3. Down sheep

Raw Wool: How To Find And Pick The Best Fleece For Your Off-Grid Needs

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These sheep have fleece with short staples that can range from fine to medium weight. They are difficult to felt and harder to spin, but they make excellent batting and insulation. Breeds: Dorset, Hampshire, North Country Cheviot, Southdown and Suffolk.

4. Long wool

These breeds have long staples and are excellent for spinning; most will felt. They range in softness from medium to fine. Breeds: Cotswold, Border Leicester, Romney, Lincoln, Targhee, Columbia and Corriedale.

5. Fine wool

Sheep with fine wool will have the softest fiber; these will also be the most expensive fleeces. Excellent for garments and felting. Breeds: Cormo, Merino, Rambouillet and Polwarth

Selecting a Fleece

Pay your local farmer or shepherd a visit.  If the wool is still on the sheep, determine if there is a lot of dirt or vegetable matter (VM) in the wool. Most dirt can be removed with gentle scouring before you use the wool, but examine the fleece to ensure it isn’t full of VM, heavy soiling or impurities like dye. There does come a point where a fleece is not worth the trouble to wash. VM is worse than dirt, because it will have to be carded out. Some sheep wear coats to protect the fleece from too much VM, but this adds to the cost of production. Ask the shepherd about the wool and how it’s been used in the past, and whether the sheep have had a good year. Healthy, happy sheep produce better wool with no breaks in the staple; stress causes the wool to weaken while growing. If you like the look of the wool and the price, find out when the farm is shearing.  If you can help on shearing day, you will often get first pick of the fleeces, sometimes get a lower price, and usually make a friend.

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When buying shorn fleece, look for it to be “skirted,” which means the bottom edges and rump area have been removed. This portion of the fleece is too dirty to be worth the effort needed to scour it. Look for “second cuts,” short pieces of fleece that indicate the shearer passed over an area more than once and didn’t cut the full length of fiber. These become waste during carding. Lastly, test the strength of the fiber by gently snapping a staple between the thumb and forefingers of both hands. If you snap the fiber and hear a crackling sound, there may be a break in the fleece. Most shepherds know how to price their wool so it will be competitive. Pay top dollar only for very fine, very clean fleeces with strong fibers and even staple length.

With all of this information, you should be able to find wool to suit your needs; don’t be afraid to talk to a local spinning group or wool cooperative if you’re having trouble. When you find a good shepherd in your area, see if you can help out at lambing time or shearing, or even to sheep-sit while the shepherd is on vacation. A shepherd is a great friend to have, because you’ll find yourself quickly with enough wool for all the needs of your homestead.

What advice would you add on looking for wool? Share your tips in the section below:

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SHEEP for the End of the World?!? If You Want to Thrive!

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Are you ready? We live in a challenging time. Many people feel uneasy. Many realize we are one Chinese hack away from an electrical grid shut-down or a stock market melt-down. Some are preparing. Putting away food, seeds, etc. But if you have to provide your own food for a prolonged period, veggies get old and remember vitamins may not be available to supplement an all vegetarian diet. You need a self replicating meat production unit. What is that? It is more commonly known as a sheep, but that is the short answer. Please read on to gain an important understanding of why I am telling you about this at all.

If you live in a city none of this applies to you. If you have been able to get a bit of land, even as little as two acres, you might be able to use this information. I have kept sheep for many years, but not just any sheep. My wife and I have raised Gulf Coast Native sheep for the last twelve years. It is because of my experience with this breed that I believe we have something to offer anyone thinking of preparing for difficult times. Let me explain first about why sheep fit the bill for potential survival scenarios and then why Gulf Coast may be your best option if you decide to get some sheep.

The most important item to consider to start with is this: what will my animals eat? Many people like pork, but pigs eat grain. Grain may not be easily obtained, might be expensive if available and might be better used for feeding people directly. If you have lots of oak trees available, then pigs will grow well on acorns, but we don’t all have the trees. Most people with some land will have grass and/or brush. Here is where ruminants come into their own. With their four stomachs they are quite capable of turning that roughage into meat, milk and/or fiber.

You might be thinking “Well, a cow is a ruminant, I can get one of those.” Yes, that is possible, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Cows are big! If you have a good amount of land, sturdy equipment to handle them and a bit of experience then they can be a good choice. I also have cattle. When you slaughter an animal that size, it can have a serious impact. You will have to kill it, hang it, skin it, gut it and cut it into parts. Then you will have entrails to dispose of, a hide to tan, and a carcass weighing 500-700 pounds. If you have a lot of friends you can have a great party. If it is only for your family, you will have to freeze, salt, dry, and/or can the meat to preserve it for future use. That sounds like quite a bit of work doesn’t it? Now think about doing the above with an animal only 10% that size. I think you would agree that that sounds much more manageable. Throughout the world small ruminants predominate for this very reason. Without the industrial infrastructure to support large scale cattle production and processing most people gravitate to the more practical sheep and goats.

Another consideration is that a piece of land that can support one cow might support ten sheep or goats. What happens if your one cow dies prematurely from disease or accident? You see where I am coming from don’t you? In survival situations you don’t want all your eggs in one basket.

Now that you see that sheep can be a very good choice especially for the small acreage and/or less experienced individuals, I would like to sing the praises of the Gulf Coast Native sheep and why they are the best choice for tough times. First a little history.

The Gulf Coast breed, along with the Navajo Churro, are descended from sheep brought to the new world by the Spanish. They are the oldest breeds of sheep in the US. The Churro is adapted to the Southwest, while the Gulf Coast is adapted to the Southeast. Many centuries of benign neglect (natural selection) produced an animal that is tough, heat tolerant, a good browser, resistant to foot rot and most importantly parasite resistant. The Gulf Coast is a small breed, but that is a positive for heat adaptation. They will produce excellent meat, wool and milk. Unlike many breeds of sheep, they will produce and survive in tough conditions when grain is not available and chemical wormers are not to be found. Prior to the advent of chemical wormers massive flocks of Gulf Coast could be found in the South. Once these wormers became available, larger more modern breeds took their place. They are now an endangered breed. Of course, if you don’t live in the south east, you can still benefit from keeping this breed. There are Gulf Coast Sheep in many parts of the country and they thrive in these ‘easier’ climates as well.

On our farm, we have worked to increase the body size and improve the wool quality and temperament of our animals. We have also worked to maintain the traits that have made this a breed of survivors. We do not routinely worm adult sheep; however, if an animal has another problem, we may worm because of accompanying immuno-suppression. Since we utilize management intensive grazing, we actually increase exposure of our sheep to parasites compared to the conditions that prevailed when they were extensively grazed in the piney woods. We have also had success upgrading the hardiness and parasite resistance of other sheep breeds through cross breeding.

The meat quality of our animals is exceptional. When Americans tell me that ours is the best lamb they have ever had, I thank them, but it doesn’t mean much since most Americans only eat lamb occasionally. When our European and Middle-eastern clients tell me the same thing I know that our lamb is something special.

Our wool has improved in quantity and quality each year until we are now consistently producing a very fine fleece with good staple length. This is a very nice hand spinning wool that could be useful if you are forced to make your own clothing.


We do not milk our sheep, but the breed is being used for that purpose by others. Gulf Coast do milk longer than most non-dairy breeds but the greatest drawback is that they have a more flighty temperament. Through selection over the years, our animals have calmed considerably and I believe could be used for milk production if one wanted to pursue that use.

When times are tough only the tough survive. These sheep are tough and they will survive. If you see livestock as part of your survival plan they may be just what you need. But act soon as the time may be short to make arrangements for you and your family.

If you have questions or are interested in purchasing sheep, my wife Dr. Jan Southers or I will be happy to help. We are:

Hope Springs Farm, Colbert, GA 30628 phone: 706-788-2071 cell: 706-248-1740

There is also the Gulf Coast Breeders Association, 947 County Road 302, Sandia, TX 78383

By C.L. Kitttell, DVM

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