Time to get on top of lameness

Oct
2017
09
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Phillipa page examining feet blog detail

The early autumn months are a good time to start making a concerted effort to tackle sheep lameness and cut the costs of this debilitating disease.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) estimates that at least three million sheep are lame at any one time in the UK, with a possible nine million becoming lame every year. It’s a depressing statistic and quite apart from the negative financial impact of the disease, seeing lame sheep in fields year after year is a demoralising sight for farmers.

Sheep lameness reduction Five-Point Plan

The good news is that the industry has now united behind the Five-Point sheep lameness reduction plan developed by FAI Farms. The plan is practical and now delivering a real impact on UK farms.

The results have led AHDB and other industry stakeholders to support the Five-Point Plan as the recommended approach to reducing the incidence of lameness in sheep. Following targets set by the Farm Animal Welfare Council in 2011 – recommending that lameness prevalence in the national flock should be reduced to 2% or less by 2021 – the disease remains a key focus for DEFRA.

Clear lameness management strategy

“Lameness should not be accepted as part and parcel of sheep farming,” says independent sheep vet Phillipa Page from Flock Health Limited. “Fortunately, the Five-Point Plan gives sheep producers a clear lameness management strategy for the future and a practical protocol for reducing the incidence of this costly problem.

“Implemented correctly, it builds a flock’s resilience to disease through culling persistently lame animals, reduces the infection challenge on the farm and establishes immunity through vaccination. Many flocks around the country are seeing the benefits of implementing this plan and sheep lameness nationwide would be dramatically reduced if more farmers adopted it,” she says.

For example, a report published in the Veterinary Record highlights just what can be achieved. One flock of 1,200 ewes managed to reduce lameness levels from an average annual prevalence of 7.4% to only 2.6% within a year of implementing the plan. Lameness levels were then maintained at less than 1% for the next three years.

“You really can make an impact. Lameness should not be accepted as part and parcel of sheep farming and the early autumn is a good time to get started. Any ewes that have had persistent or chronic lameness problems should be culled before tupping,” Ms Page says.

“Ewes suffering repeated bouts of lameness are a constant source of infection in the flock, reducing the effectiveness of the other control measures. Use cull tags, spray marks or EID to identify the main offenders and any ewes with chronically misshapen feet. Animals identified as being lame three times in a season should be culled,” she says.

Ms Page also stresses that early treatment of any lame sheep is a crucial part of the Five-Point Plan. “The feet of affected sheep should be examined closely to identify the cause of the lameness. If in doubt seek veterinary diagnostic advice and then treat the infectious conditions appropriately with antibiotics, even if it is only a mild case.

Vaccination against footrot

“If footrot is implicated, vaccination of the whole flock will help reduce the lesions caused by the bacteria Dichelobacter nodosus. On-going vaccination, timed to coincide with high disease risk times on the farm, will also help prevent future problems and reduce antibiotic usage in future years,” she adds.

It’s also important to quarantine any incoming animals and avoid spreading disease when sheep are gathered and handled.

“Incoming sheep are a potential source of different strains of bacteria and are therefore a big risk to sheep already on the farm. Make sure you buy sheep carefully and do not accept lame animals or any with misshapen feet. Quarantine the incomers for at least three weeks, vaccinating and foot bathing them on arrival. Turn every sheep to look for early footrot or contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD) and treat any clinical cases as soon as possible,” Ms Page says.

Finally, you must reduce the potential disease challenge from the farm environment.

“The bacteria that cause most of the lameness problems in the UK spread well in wet, soiled handling and field areas. It is therefore important to limit spread by running gathered sheep out through a foot bath and spread lime, or use gravel or wood chip, in any poached or heavy traffic areas, such as around feed troughs.

If you are interested in implementing the Five-Point Plan on your own farm please contact or local vet or usual animal health adviser and ask for help from a qualified sheep lameness reduction adviser. 

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