Brothers and first-generation farmers Alan and Richard Fairbairn have built their sheep and beef enterprise up from scratch and now have a firm focus on health planning.
Not from a farming family originally, brothers Alan and Richard Fairbairn started out in employment in their teens, working on local farms and for contractors around Stourbridge, before finally setting up on their own.
More than 20 years on, Hill Farm, near Belbroughton, Worcestershire, is now run by the Fairbairns in partnership, where they have access to nearly 20 parcels of grassland adding up to 142 hectares (350 acres) in total, all within a five-mile radius.
Richard looks after the sheep enterprise, which holds 550 ewes lambing in three batches between January and April. Alan focuses more on the beef production enterprise. They still do some local contacting work too. The brothers have had to continually adapt their business to get the most out of the fixed farm assets at their disposal.
As a result, 170 Suffolk cross North Country Mules lamb in mid-January, followed by 230 Texel cross North Country Mules lambing in early February. The final batch, a group of North Country Mules put to Texel cross Suffolk rams to produce flock replacements, lamb in April.
However, a series of disease setbacks with the flock, triggered potentially by buying-in new stock with problems and also inherent on-farm issues, has taught the brothers the value of vaccination. So much so, they now focus firmly on proactive flock health planning, working closely with their vet practice MacArthur Barstow and Gibbs.
Alan says: “I would advise any livestock farmer to put most of their effort into disease prevention. Our experience has taught us the value of this approach and it now saves us a lot of money and significant hassle.
“There are not enough hours in the day to be firefighting and constantly treating sick animals.”
It is in managing lame sheep that the Fairbairns have really seen a demonstrable difference to their day-to-day working lives following a vaccination policy.
Richard says: “Five years ago, we were buying-in some Suffolk cross ewes and, when we quarantined them for three to four weeks, we were taken aback over how badly affected their feet were with footrot.
“Knowing how infectious this cause of lameness can be, we knew immediately we had to tighten up our lameness control programme.
“We worked hard to make sure we were implementing all the measures set out in the five-point sheep lameness reduction plan, but our first steps were prompt antibiotic treatment of any affected ewes and culling any persistently lame sheep.
“We also decided to vaccinate all the ewes, with one dose in summer and a second dose six months later, prior to housing for lambing.
“Our culling policy and use of the vaccine in the first year made a massive difference to our ewes’ feet during the lambing season.
“It also had a positive knockon effect with lamb foot health at grass the following spring; it was so much better than in previous years. In our experience, if a ewe has bad feet, her lambs suffer.”
The brothers also looked to limit the spread of any infectious foot disease at grass, by liming areas around feed troughs. In addition, they vaccinate all their replacement ewe lambs after weaning.
Richard says: “This was probably our best decision ever and, since then, we have never had a case of footrot in these animals as adult sheep. It is so soul-destroying and time-consuming having to treat lame sheep, so it is great to be on top of things.”
Booster vaccination against lameness continues to this day, but is not a blanket policy. The brothers now use it tactically in different groups of sheep before periods of high risk.
Find more information on the MSD Animal Health stand at NSA Sheep 2018.