Parasites are OK - we all have them
We all carry around microscopic creatures that live inside and outside of our bodies, and sheep are no exception. This is normal, and when the numbers of microscopic creatures that a body carries are in balance, large and small creatures work together and live in harmony.

Balance is the key
Livestock such as sheep (and cattle and hogs and poultry) often spend at least part of the year in large groups and/or in fairly confined spaces. Under these conditions, internal parasites can experience a population explosion, and upset the natural balance. When this occurs, the internal parasites start using too many of the nutrients that the animal takes in, and her health begins to suffer.

Chemical wormers are the most common control method used
Many livestock producers use what are called "chemical wormers" to keep the parasite population under control in their animals. These powerful chemicals are administered to the animals on a regular basis, either by mouth, by hypodermic needle, or as an additive to their daily feed. Chemical wormers can be quite successful if used in conjunction with pasture rotation so the animals do not graze on ground that they've already infected with worm eggs. But there are downsides to to this approach...

The drawbacks
Of course, regardless of the pasture management methods, a major drawback to killing these parasites with chemicals is that they tend to mutate very quickly in order to survive the onslaught, so new and more powerful chemicals have to be developed to kill them, and the cycle continues.

And then there are the issues of feeding our animals substances that are essentially pesticides, and the residues that may possibly end up in our food supply. Where does this cycle end?

An alternative to chemicals
Many producers raising livestock by natural and organic methods are breaking this cycle of pumping more and stronger chemicals into our animals by using natural approaches to keeping the parasite levels in harmony.

Unlike the "quick-fix" mentality of modern medicine, using natural methods successfully requires a thoughtful blend of several different approaches. Three approaches that are used at SkyLines Farm are:

  • Garlic
  • Diatomaceous earth
  • Rotationial grazing

Garlic, the miracle herb
For thousands of years, garlic has been revered as having powerful and sometimes magical benefits. One very potent and effective use of garlic is as a vermifuge (it kills or drives out intestinal worms).

I have been using garlic successfully since 1992, combined with the other practices described below, both to control internal parasites in the sheep and as a general health-booster. Just to be sure, though, I have my vet perform fecal tests regularly. Every test since 1992 has shown zero or very low worm counts.

In superb health without
the benefit of chemical wormers,
the Montadale ewe April has
always been a wonderful mom.

Here, she keeps a close eye on her first lamb,
a little Romney-Montadale ram
just a few days old and
ready to start exploring his world.

1) Now and then, a shepherd asks me if I think this program could work for someone who's been worming their sheep chemically for a number of years. I started out chemical-free in 1992 and have never deviated from that course, so that's a tough question to answer. However, I do believe a shepherd could at least significantly reduce the parasite load by integrating organic methods into their existing management program. It wouldn't happen overnight of course, but over time there should be improvement in worm loads and overall flock health. A complete transition to organic methods might involve long-term resting of pastures or plowing and replanting pastures, but in my opinion it's certainly worth attempting.

The procedure
CAVEAT #2: Though the basic procedure for using garlic as a vermifuge remains about the same among shepherds, most adjust the recipe or the schedule for their particular flock needs. What follows is what works for SkyLines Farm . . .

In the early days I was a purist about dosing the sheep with only pure, fresh, organic garlic. I used to painstakingly crush each clove of fresh garlic, mix it with molasses and cornmeal, and form it into little balls which I then forced into the sheep's mouths. They certainly didn't appreciate me shoving my hand in their mouths, and I didn't care for it much either! But, with only 5 or 6 sheep, it was tolerable.

As the flock grew, I quickly decided that there are such things as economies of scale. It's obviously more practical to give the sheep their dose of what's good for them with a quick, easy squeeze of a syringe in the mouth at the same time that I do other things, like trim their hooves. After dosing them with garlic, I lock the sheep in a dry paddock for a day or two, so they can pass any worms and/or eggs they might have in their systems. They then go out to graze in a fresh, rested paddock.

The garlic recipe
The recipe I use is based on the recommendations of British veterinarian and herbalist Juliette de Bairacli Levy (see Links & Resources page, The Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable). I've found that a generous proportion of molasses in the mix makes it much more palatable to the sheep (some even beg me to let them suck it out of the syringe), and Juliette de Bairacli Levy believes that molasses greatly aids garlic in its efficacy.


1 Tbsp powdered garlic
1 Tbsp molasses
1-2 Tbsp water or less, just enough to thin
so it will go through the tip of a syringe

Dose adults with about 40 cc's by mouth
Till about four months of age
lambs get half this amount

I started out measuring these ingredients precisely for dosing jut a few sheep. I now dose up to 125 sheep at a time, and have learned to eyeball the proportions of ingredients. I haven't yet overdosed sheep with this recipe and doubt that I could . . .

The "garlicking" schedule

Five Time Per Year

> Before breeding in late fall
> Before lambing in spring
> After lambing in early summer
> Mid summer
> Late summer

I originally "garlicked" the sheep four times a year, but added a 5th dosing in mid-summer to try and deal with the problem of nasal bots in the sheep. The number of nasal bot cases in the SkyLines flock has dropped dramatically since then, down to just 3 sheep out of 95 in winter '06-'07. I can live with that, especially since I'm totally avoiding the one and only treatment I've been able to discover for nasal bots, which is Ivomec. I conducted an informal study on the nasal bot issue over a 5-year period, and you can read about it here.


Garlic odor?
Many people have asked whether dosing sheep with garlic might impart a "garlicky" odor to the wool. I've found absolutely no garlic odor to the sheep's fleeces, to their breath, or their milk. In fact, some of my freezer lamb customer have speculated that the regular doses of garlic might be a contributing factor to the terrific taste of SkyLines lamb. Since I always cook lamb with lots of fresh garlic, I tend to agree with this theory . . .

Diatomaceous Earth
Natural parasite control involves a multi-pronged approach. In addition to using garlic to worm the sheep, I also add diatomaceous earth to the sheep's loose mineral mix. Diatomaceous earth is a naturally-occurring substance. It is the fossilized remains of long-dead sea creatures, and it is mined from ancient sea beds and ground to a fine, powder-like consistency. It is believed that the microscopic sharp edges of the DE particles scrape off the worm eggs that the adult worms have attached to the sheep's intestinal walls, so they can pass out with the feces.

(Window on another world: Since learning years ago about the life cycle of some of these internal parasites, I've just never been able to look at a pasture in quite the same way. When I look down now I see, in my mind's eye, an entire world of microscopic creatures, all going about their busy lives much the way we do. Interesting perspective.)

The DE recipe
The sheep get their DE in a ratio of about 1/4 DE and 3/4 salt-mineral mix. In 1992 I started out by feeding the DE free choice to the sheep, separately from their salt-mineral, so they could tell me how much they required. The 1/4-3/4 ratio is what they chose to eat, so after about a year I began to mix the two into one container for convenience.

I should note here that many of these procedures were not well known even in te 90's, so natural and organic producers had to experiment, figure out things like dosages for ourselves, and share what we'd learned with each other. The garlic and DE approach is now used very successfully by a great many natural and organic livestock producers and is approved for use under USDA Organic Certification.

Where to get DE
I have purchased DE through Garden City Seeds in Montana/Washington and Peaceful Valley Farm Supply in California, both suppliers of organic garden seeds, tools, and supplies. I currently purchase larger quantities (50 lb. bags) through Azure Standard in Oregon. I imagine that suppliers in the midwest and east carry it also. Several suppliers have warned livestock producers not to use the DE designed for swimming pool filtration, but to use agricultural or food-grade DE instead. I've always played it safe and ordered food-grade or livestock-grade DE.

Rotational grazing

The third part of the program, pasture rotation, is extremely important to parasite control (it's also a critical part of pasture management, but that's addressed elsewhere).

Sheep shed worms and worm eggs in their manure, and resting a pasture lets the sun, wind, and cold kill off most of the worms and eggs so the sheep don't reinfect themselves as they graze.

Twenty-one day life cycle
Research has shown the life cycle of roundworms, the most common parasite to infect sheep, to be about 21 days. To break this cycle, I allow the sheep to graze each paddock absolutely no longer than three weeks - one or two is more typical - and then move them to a fresh paddock and rest the previous one for a minimum of a month, six weeks, or more. Most my pastures rest for about 6 months during the fall, winter, and early spring.

Sheep grazing in top paddock

In late summer, SkyLines sheep graze
in the rested spring lambing yard.

It's working
To ensure that these methods are working at SkyLines Farm, I have had fecal tests performed frequently over the years (worm eggs are shed in sheep's manure, and show up under a microscope). My vet used to look through the microscope and just scratch his head. He couldn't believe the worm egg count could be so low without the use of chemical wormers. The latest fecal test showed a zero count.

Herbs in the pasture
Some people seed medicinal herbs in their pasture ground, which I think is a great idea if you can keep the herbs going from year to year. That's the easy way to let the sheep dose themselves with what's good for them.

On my previous farm, there was a small paddock that used to be a vegetable garden. The paddock was dotted with horseradish that had gone wild, and the sheep liked the horseradish so well they completely grazed it out within a few seasons. I suppose I could have replanted the paddock with horseradish and maybe garlic, but that's a job for a farmer with a tractor who doesn't mind plowing up a perfectly good pasture every few years.

Instead, I now try to time the spring grazing rotations at SkyLines Farm so that some of the dandelions in the pastures have an opportunity to go to seed every year. Dandelions have long, deep taproots that bring minerals up from the subsoil to the surface. For this reason, they're a great spring tonic for the sheep, and all of the animals go after the flowers and the leaves with relish.

Future pasture seeding that I do will include seeds of select beneficial herbs, and that's a topic that I'm still researching.

<<< UPDATE APRIL 2021: >>>
since I created this page, my parasite control methods have remained the same. All the critters at SkyLines Farm remain healthy, happy, and with low or no parasite load. It works!

If you want to contact me to clarify something about my methods, I'll be happy to try and answer it, at no charge. However, PLEASE EMAIL instead of calling. Trading voicemails is a waste of time for both of us. I'll respond much faster to an email anyway!
My best to you, in your quest to be a better shepherd! Melissa



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