UK sheep farmers are making real progress towards stamping out lameness in the national flock, but ongoing action is still needed.
Since the publication of the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s ‘Opinion on sheep lameness’ report in March 2011, the industry has made great strides, but must maintain momentum if it is to hit its target of less than 2 per cent disease incidence in the national flock by 20211 .
If you are struggling to reduce lameness in your own flock, it is time to take action, and there is plenty of support and local help available to help you take the first step towards better long term disease control.
Late summer is a great time to start implementing the proven five-point lameness reduction plan, which is why the industry, supported by the National Sheep Association, is focusing on this debilitating sheep disease throughout July and early August.
Look out for further coverage in Farmers Guardian over the coming weeks and practical advice at the main summer sheep shows.
Developed by Dr Ruth Clements, head of veterinary programmes at farm-based research and development organisation FAI Farms, the five-point disease reduction plan is already delivering substantial improvements on UK sheep farms.
Dr Clements says: “There is some evidence suggesting lameness levels have halved over the last five years. Implementation of the five-point plan is also helping the sector reduce antibiotic usage for bacterial foot infections and meet new RUMA targets [65 per cent of antibiotics currently used in sheep are prescribed for the treatment of lameness2].
Implemented correctly and given long-term commitment, the five-point plan gives sheep farmers a clear framework for managing lameness effectively, because:
Dr Clements says: “By committing fully to the plan, our own practical experience, and that of a significant number of commercial sheep units around the country, has clearly shown you can build a margin of safety to ensure a flock is less likely to succumb to lameness issues.
“With a concerted effort over July and August to kick start your control programme, you really can make some rapid improvements and, ultimately, slash the frustrating time you spend wrestling with this costly disease.”
In their own flock of 1,200 ewes, FAI Farms managed to reduce lameness from an annual prevalence of 7.4 per cent to only 2.6 per cent within a year of implementing the five-point plan3. Lameness levels have been maintained at only 1 per cent annually ever since.
Dr Clements says: “Implementing the five-point plan has helped us significantly reduce our reliance on antibiotics for treating clinically affected feet.”
Over the course of our five-year trial, average antibiotic treatments dropped to 0.3 per 100 ewes per month; a 94 per cent reduction on peak antibiotic usage for foot problems when our flock lameness management challenge was at its worst3 .
Dr Clements says: “With the industry spotlight firmly focused on reducing usage of antibiotics – a sheep sector task force facilitated by RUMA has already signed up to a 10 per cent reduction in antibiotic use by 20204 – it is great to know sheep producers have a proven, practical disease management protocol to really make a difference here.
“Although antibiotics still have an important role in helping us treat clinical bacterial disease, reducing our reliance on them for managing lameness is one of key areas the sheep industry must focus on.”
DR Clements says: “Weaning is an ideal time to cull out any ewes with chronic feet and reset the breeding flock for the new sheep year.
“Ewes suffering repeated bouts of lameness are a constant source of infection in the flock and make other control measures ineffective. Use cull tags, spray marks or EID to identify the main offenders and any ewes with chronically misshapen feet. Animals identified as being lame twice in a season should be culled.”
However, Dr Clements advises early treatment of lame sheep, ideally within three days of becoming lame5 . She says this is an important part of the five-point plan, particularly early on in its implementation while there are still a considerable number of lame animals.
“The feet of affected sheep should be examined closely to identify any diseases causing lameness. If in doubt, seek veterinary diagnostic advice, then treat the infectious conditions appropriately with antibiotics, even if it is only a mild case.”
If footrot is implicated, vaccination of the whole flock will help reduce lesions caused by multiple strains of the bacteria Dichelobacter nodosus (most farms have more than two strains), which is present on 97 per cent of farms1 and a year round threat.
Ongoing vaccination, timed in anticipation of high disease risk times (such as warm, wet underfoot conditions and at housing) on-farm, will also help prevent future problems and reduce antibiotic usage in later years.
Dr Clements says further preventative parts of the plan include quarantine of any incoming animals and avoiding spreading disease when sheep are gathered and handled. She adds that incoming sheep are a potential source of strains of bacteria and are therefore a big risk to sheep already on-farm:
“Make sure you buy sheep carefully and ask your stock supplier if they are following the five-point plan. Do not accept lame animals or any with misshapen feet.
“Quarantine incomers for at least four weeks, vaccinating and footbathing them on arrival. Turn every sheep to look for early footrot or CODD and treat any clinical cases as soon as possible.”
Reduce the challenge Finally, Dr Clements advises reducing potential disease challenge from the farm environment; remembering footrot and scalding spread from sheep to sheep.
She says: “The bacteria which cause most of the lameness problems in the UK spread well in wet, soiled sheep handling and field areas and can survive on the pasture for up to two weeks.
“It is therefore important to spread lime, or use gravel or woodchip, in any poached or heavy traffic areas, such as around feed or water troughs.”
For practical advice on reducing sheep lameness, visit the MSD Animal Health stands at NSA Sheep (July 18) and the Royal Welsh Show (July 22-26).
You can also ask your vet or local animal health product supplier suitably qualified person for advice. The MSD Animal Health lameness control on-farm planner will help you focus on any weaknesses in your flock management system and identify where to start.
1. Opinion on lameness in sheep; March 2011.
2. Davies et al, Quantitative analysis of antibiotic usage in British sheep flocks; Veterinary Record, November 2017.
3. H. Clements, S.C. Stoye, The five-point plan: a successful tool for reducing lameness in sheep; Veterinary Record, 2014.
4. Industry taskforce announces new farm antibiotic reduction targets; RUMA; October 27, 2017. 5. Green, R. Clifton, Reducing lameness in sheep: new approach recommended; Veterinary Record, June 2017.