Welfare decisions for sheep and cattle

Page last updated: Thursday, 30 November 2023 - 10:14am

Please note: This content may be out of date and is currently under review.

At times such as during drought, sheep and cattle are subject to dramatic loss in body condition due to reduced feed intake. As animals lose condition, their general health, fertility and ability to rear young suffers. There is also a substantial decline in carcass and production value.

Welfare decisions for sheep

As animals fall to body condition score (BCS) 1.5 or less, their strength and ability to withstand the rigors of transport are greatly reduced. If they lose condition further they are at risk of dying. It is not acceptable to allow livestock to reach this condition or to transport weakened animals. An easy method to condition score sheep is described on the Condition scoring of sheep page. The Sheep Condition Scoring app is another handy tool.

Decisions about feeding and whether animals are fit for transport need to be made by livestock managers, advisers and transport operators. Decisions also need to be made regarding humane destruction on the property if warranted.

These are difficult decisions and place the people making them under a great deal of emotional stress.

Assessing animals

The below figure shows the key sites for assessing an animal’s status. Use Table 1 to decide on the status of animals and the action required.

Use the short and long ribs, backbone and pin bones for assessing an animal’s status.

Table 1 Risk matrix for sheep (critical factors identified with double asterisk)

At risk

BCS 1.5

Substantial risk 


Extreme risk

<BCS 1

General description

Lean, muscle wastage evident. Reduced reproductive performance likely.

Significant muscle wastage. Unlikely to conceive. Able to recover in time if adequately fed. Weak, with very low body reserves. At risk of death from cold, wet weather or other stress. Recovery dependent on high quality care and will be slow.
Backbone Visible. Spines of backbone identifiable.

Spines of backbone easily identifiable.

Short ribs Slightly visible individually, more so in Merino sheep. Prominent and very sharp to touch. Very prominent and easy to see individually.
Inside pin bones Slightly sunken. Sunken. Deeply sunken to the bone.
Muscle wastage Rump muscle concave.

Rump muscle concave. Muscle wastage in loin and leg muscle evident.

Obvious over whole body. Rump and leg muscles deeply concave.
Stifle joint Stifle joint not identifiable.

Stifle joint not identifiable.

Stifle joint identifiable.

Tail bones Individual bones not identifiable.

Individual bones just able to be felt.

Individual bones easily felt.

Appearance and behaviour

Animal looks ‘narrow’ when viewed from behind

Appears alert and mobile, will attempt to eat grass, head to the ground.
Able to stand but listless, dull. 

Sunken or humped back, head lowered.

Lacking energy, dull and listless, may be recumbent and unlikely to stand.
Mobility Normal gait. Mobile, able to lie down and rise but may have some difficulty. Unsteady gait, may drag feet or 'teeter'. Difficult to lie down and rise.

Lambing requirements & risks associated with lambing**

Some assistance required, high possibility of losing lamb during birth or on first day after birth. High possibility of pregnancy toxaemia and/or hypocalcaemia. Separate pregnant animals within this condition score range and care for and feed a high energy supplement separately. Necessary to seek advice on adequate feeding from a professional (for example veterinarian, development officer).

Will need a lot of assistance - ewe and lamb may not survive.

Extremely unlikely that lamb and ewe will survive lambing.

Transport, sale**

Unfit for transport except in accordance with veterinary advice. Unfit for sale at saleyards.

Unfit for transport except in accordance with veterinary advice. Unfit for sale at saleyards. Unfit for transport except in accordance with veterinary advice. Unfit for sale at saleyards.

Action required

Feed adequately to prevent extra weight loss.

Supervise and be ready to assist during lambing — supervise lamb after birth.

Must be fed adequately immediately to prevent weight loss.

Very high level of care and nutrition required or humanely destroy on farm.

Criteria for destruction on property

Some sheep may require humane destruction on property. They should be destroyed if they are in poor or very poor condition as described on the next page and meet any of the following conditions:

  • they fall down or are knocked over easily
  • they are unable to stand without assistance
  • they have an unsteady gait
  • adequate good quality feed cannot be provided
  • adequate good quality water cannot be provided
  • it is uneconomic
  • not possible to transport, sell or feed due to circumstances.

​Condition score 1 sheep may also need to be destroyed when treatment, transport or feeding is not possible. Sheep must not be allowed to starve to death.

This information has been derived from Blackwood, I, Garden, B, Littler, B, Paul, A and Prowse, K, 2007,  Primefact 619, Welfare decisions for beef cows, Industry and Investment NSW, and Thompson, A, Kelly, J, and Paul, A, 2013, Welfare Scoring nutritionally deprived beef cattle, dairy cattle and their crosses, sheep and horses, NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Contact information

Animal Welfare General Enquiries