Sheep farmers are being urged to take steps to boost ewe colostrum quality pre-lambing instead of relying on the blanket use of antibiotics for neonatal lambs during the peak lambing season.
Independent vet Dr Fiona Lovatt, from Flock Health, says lambs receiving insufficient good quality colostrum at birth is behind one of the sheep industry’s biggest antibiotic use ‘hotspots’, in what is otherwise a low-use sector.
She says: “Essentially, the routine usage of oral antibiotics to control E.coli infections, such as watery mouth, is largely avoidable. The reality is that we simply do not see watery mouth in lambs that have taken sufficient colostrum on board in that golden 24-hour window immediately after birth.”
Dr Lovatt says a 5kg lamb at birth needs a litre of colostrum in its first 24 hours of life to give it essential levels of natural immunity. But importantly, the first feed should be within two hours of birth.
“Antibodies – essential in protecting lambs from all diseases, including against bugs such as E.coli or clostridia and pasteurella – cannot cross through the placenta, so must be transferred through colostrum.
“While thin ewes or those that are not well fed in the run-up to lambing will produce too little colostrum of low quality, more often it is simply a matter of not getting enough colostrum into the lamb quickly enough after birth.”
Dr Lovatt is urging sheep producers to plan carefully for their peak lambing season.
“Lambing is a really pressurised and often chaotic period for everyone on the farm, but no-one can afford now to rely on preventative antibiotics to carry them through; both from an industry image perspective but also because of the very real problem of antibiotic resistance.
“We know from Government data that 50 per cent of neonatal lamb E.coli strains are already resistant to spectinomycin and more than 60 per cent are resistant to tetracycline, both very commonly used sheep antibiotics.
"Every shepherd really needs to work to protect these antibiotics on their own farms or they will get into a situation where they have nothing to turn to.”
Dr Lovatt says there is much that can be done now to protect flocks from potential infections and also prevent key disease problems taking hold.
“Ewes should be fit and well fed, and fully vaccinated. Pregnant ewes should receive their clostridia and pasteurella booster vaccination four to six weeks before lambing. This will boost the level of antibodies against these diseases in her colostrum.
"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 two key disease threats.
"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.”
When planning the control of neonatal period diseases such as watery mouth and joint ill, Dr Lovatt suggests challenging established management practices, particularly where there has been an over reliance on blanket treatment with antibiotics in the past.
“I keep coming across flocks routinely dosing lambs based on a disease outbreak that happened years ago and although lots has changed, they have never thought to reassess.
“Consider dividing your flock into groups and identifying low- and high-risk lambs; it is ridiculous to see the whole flock as one group all at the same risk.
“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. More so than fit, healthy single lambs born in the first week of lambing that receive adequate colostrum,” she adds.