Sheep producers are being urged to plan carefully for their peak lambing season and put the focus on sound preventative health practices to mitigate key disease risks in lambs.
Fiona Lovatt, from Flock Health, says there is much that can be done now to protect flocks from potential infections and probably the most important step at this time of year is to plan to make sure ewe colostrum is as good as it can be.
She says: “Essential antibodies cannot get into the unborn lamb over the placenta, so must be transferred via colostrum. Consequently, the aim must be to make sure every newborn lamb receives enough good quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth.”
She says the starting point for this is to make sure pregnant ewes are fit and well fed, and fully vaccinated.
“Ewe nutrition is key, but so is good vaccination practice and this means making sure all in-lamb ewes receive their clostridia and pasteurella booster vaccination four to six weeks before lambing.
“This will increase the levels of antibodies in her colostrum against devastating early life disease threats for lambs such as lamb dysentery, pulpy kidney and pasteurellosis.
“If her lambs then receive sufficient of this fortified colostrum during the first one to two days of life, they will gain some protection against these key disease threats. However, this only lasts in the lambs for a limited period of time but should help protect them up to the stage that they can be vaccinated themselves.”
Boosting ewe colostrum quality and feeding enough in early life will also help the UK sheep industry continue to reduce the ‘comfort blanket’ routine administration of oral antibiotics in lambs, usually used to control E.coli infections such as watery mouth or scours.
“We are making really good progress in this area,” Dr Lovatt says. “Over the last couple of years there has been more than a 20 per cent decrease in the blanket use of antibiotics for this purpose, as more and more farmers gain confidence that the practice is no longer necessary on a routine basis.
"The reality is that we simply do not see watery mouth in lambs that have taken sufficient colostrum on board during that golden 24-hour window immediately after birth.”
She adds that it is well worth taking advice from your vet, SQP and/or nutritionist in the crucial run up to lambing.
“For example, your vet can help you assess ewe body condition, advise on correct vaccination practice and also judge the genuine risk of neonatal disease in lambs based on your flock’s history. ‘Plan, prevent and protect’ is the key disease management message.
“For example, ewes should be in the best condition possible for the last six weeks of pregnancy when 70 per cent of foetal growth takes place.
“Get it wrong and you may have to cope with poor lamb survival rates, low birth weights and inferior quality ewe colostrum.
“Group and feed ewes according to scanning results and their condition score. It is very important to get the diet correctly balanced for energy and protein, as well as minerals, so ask your vet or nutritionist for advice here.
"You can also ask your vet to take blood samples from ewes four to six weeks pre-lambing, just to make sure their diet is delivering the required energy and protein status.”
For sheep farmers who are reluctant to move away from routine antibiotic treatments, Dr Lovatt suggests mentally dividing the flock into groups and identifying low and high risk lambs.
“Clearly, triplet or low birth weight lambs born to thin or poorly fed ewes – perhaps born later in the lambing period when environmental conditions will be more challenging – will be more at risk. In contrast there is never the need to dose a fit, healthy single lamb born in the first week of lambing that receive adequate colostrum.”
Implementing sound hygiene practices will also help.
“It is important to make sure lambing sheds are clean, dry and draught free. Always use plenty of fresh bedding, disinfect all equipment and if weather conditions allow, turn out ewes and lambs as soon as possible after lambing,” she says.