Faced with recurring lameness issues, sheep producer Olly Matthews knew he needed to make changes to build a viable business.
After building up sheep numbers to 500 ewes in 2017 from a standing start five years previously, Olly Matthews realised to succeed he would need to become as efficient as possible.
Mr Matthews, who farms with his brother Edward at Rectory Farm, Yatton, Somerset, was running 500 ewes comprising Mules, Suffolk Mules and Texel Mules on 162 hectares (400 acres) of owned and rented grassland spread over 15 sites.
The business also includes 200 cattle and a 2,000-bird Christmas poultry business.
Mr Matthews says: “Having built the flock up quickly it was clear we were buying in too much disease.
“We also had little control over our sheep genetics, and I wanted to change all that.”
He decided to switch to Highlander sheep, the composite maternal breed chosen for its prolificacy and ability to lamb outdoors with minimal intervention.
So, they sold the Mules in 2017, buying in 150 older Highlander ewes plus 150 ewe lambs. The Suffolk Mules went in 2018 and in their place arrived another 150 Highlanders, plus some Highlander crosses.
Unfortunately, many of the incoming Highlanders quickly became lame with footrot when the flock became caught in a ‘vicious circle’ of lameness during the spring and summer of 2018.
“Having lambed inside, there were lame ewes and lambs perpetually, no matter what we did, particularly among the first group of ewes we bought in,” says Mr Matthews.
“It was soul-destroying and incredibly time-consuming, especially when it came to treating lambs.
“We were basically fire-fighting, using lots of antibiotics – an unsustainable amount in my view – and foot bathing everything.
“But because we did not have any concrete standing areas, this was not working at all well either.”
Having completed a degree in bioveterinary science at Liverpool University, Mr Matthews knew he was dealing with a highly infectious disease and had to break the cycle.
“It was clear the industryaccepted five-point plan was working well on many farms,” he says.
“Our vet and also our animal health trade adviser, Jade Chigley from Mole Valley Farmers, endorsed this as an effective approach provided you stick with it, suggesting we should try vaccinating sheep to build their immunity to the bacteria known to cause footrot.”
Mr Matthews vaccinated all the ewes prior to tupping in 2018. As a result, there has been a dramatic transformation at Rectory Farm.
“Admittedly, because we lambed everything outside this spring over a three-to four-week period starting on March 20, the infection pressure may well have been lower.
“But I have hardly seen a lame sheep this year and we rarely have to turn anything over to examine feet. If we catch anything limping, it is because it has a thorn in a foot.
“We have not needed to use any antibiotics at all during 2019 for lame sheep. I reckon we spent at least £1,500 on antibiotic treatment last year, so the investment in vaccination has already paid for itself many times over.
“This time last year, the two of us were flat out continually treating lame sheep. One of us barely spends three hours a day overseeing the flock now, which has released time to focus on other work.”
With vaccination making a difference already in terms of building immunity, the next step is to cull out older ewes hard in future and any others which become affected by any infectious lameness cause.
“We have ceased foot trimming on industry advice and will also lime around any gathering area outside,” he adds.
“Hopefully, this will avoid propagating any infection, and because we are now not buying any more sheep in – apart from Innovis rams, which will be quarantined – this should help biosecurity further.”
Now he feels he is well on the way to getting on top of flock lameness issues, Mr Matthews plans to continue vaccinating all ewes once a year prior to tupping.
“It is important we keep boosting their immunity and hope, along with the other simple steps, our lambs will remain sound too,” he says.