Vets have historically had a firefighting role when it comes to treating sheep, but is this starting to change? Laura Bowyer speaks to one sheep veterinarian to find out more.
The role of the sheep veterinarian is changing, according to Emily Gascoigne, vet at Synergy Farm Health.
Often used solely in times of emergency for caesareans and other procedures, many sheep farmers may debate their cost effectiveness.
But Miss Gascoigne is working to change the relationship between the practice’s vets and sheep farmers, taking them from the emergency-only category into more of a working relationship scenario.
She suggests farmers lack confidence when dealing with vets who are not sheep specialists, saying producers now want evidence-based, progressive strategies delivered by people who are interested and enthusiastic.
Miss Gascoigne says her own ovine interest was recognised by her practice and her employer is now investing time in continuous personal development and working to improve standards within the sheep industry.
Emphasis is put on data collection at the practice and Miss Gascoigne is particularly interested in lamb mortality rates in flocks, which she describes as a welfare issue. She is looking at the difference between scanning percentage and rearing percentage on-farm and how this can be improved.
An anonymous survey of the number of lambs scanned and the number which go on the lorry was carried out in the practice.
Miss Gascoigne says: “Typically, flocks lose lambs between scanning and lambing, either through absorption or abortion.
“Within the first 48 hours of life, colostrum intake is vital to ensure lambs’ immune systems are toughened as this can be a risky window for infections such as watery mouth.
“But in some cases, flocks were not experiencing their biggest losses until post-turnout and were having real issues at this time, so at this point parasites and clostridial diseases need to be discussed. We have annual lamb loss meetings now to benchmark figures.”
Miss Gascoigne says the perception vets are an ‘expense’ needs to be changed to make them part of an added value strategy. For example, for farmers experiencing high numbers of abortions, vaccinations are not too expensive but can make a huge difference. Vets can discuss and look into on-farm infections. She collects data from her farmers including scanning results and rates for buying-in, barren ewes and abortions.
Miss Gascoigne says: “With replacement ewes fetching high prices at market, it will not take long before taking a strategy approach to flock health will pay its way.
“I have done some quick calculations and believe a day-old lamb costs £20 to get it to that stage, so a significant number of abortions should not be seen as acceptable.”
Miss Gascoigne also says investigating a lameness strategy quickly becomes cheaper than treatment.
“Overall, a case of footrot can cost a farmer in excess of £8 per ewe in the flock, including reduced growth rates, increased culling and antibiotic usage. Preventative measures are more cost-effective than fire-fighting, so avoid the problems to start with to maximise ewe, lamb and ram performance.
“Take a group of lambs. The overall aim is to get them off the farm as quickly as possible in the most efficient manner. Post-mortems will be no benefit to the animal at this point but could benefit the rest of the flock.”
The collection of information from other professionals involved in a flock is required to move things forward, says Miss Gascoigne, and it is the flock health plan which pulls all this information together.
Miss Gascoigne says: “When it comes to parasite control, we are able to take a holistic approach through utilising in-house suitably qualified persons [SQPs] and a lab. We take a team-based approach and can do faecal egg counts in the practice and can then refer the farmer to the SQPs to ensure the wormers correspond with flock health plans.
“We run internal training to improve our own standards, our SQPS attend workshops on the risk factors in antibiotic resistance and we also have regular farmer meetings in the practice.”
Miss Gascoigne says she recognises the needs of small and large flocks are very different, so established a large flock discussion group which enabled them to target the larger flocks with specific advice within the practice. In addition, they have a smallholder membership scheme achieving the same targeted response.
The practice is also launching an organic producer group, which will initially be supported by the Soil Association.
She says: “Historically, vets have been anxious about number crunching and setting targets as they worry it is not seen as their job. But I think vets should not be afraid to discuss figures and I want both parties to get more comfortable talking about money. It is all about evidence-based measuring.”
In the last four years Miss Gascoigne says she has seen a complete change within her practice. Although some clients were initially unsure, they are now health planning and are having much more dynamic conversations.
They have annual chats to review flock health plans, but she advises these need to be ongoing and key to this is an interested vet to catalyse the vet and farmer relationship.
She says: “Health plans can be very dynamic. The document lays out strategies for vaccination and infectious disease as well as farm benchmarking data.”
In the past they have just been documents which sit on a shelf until the next review. However, Miss Gascoigne says she would rather find the document in a shed covered in finger prints, showing it has been vigorously used.
She believes electronic identification (EID) has huge potential and vets need to increasinglyengage with it, for example using daily liveweight gain as part of parasite management.
“EID can be beneficial for spotting ewes which need culling, for example prolapsed ewes which are a big candidate for leaving the farm.
“It is just part of the huge potential for improving the relationships between sheep farmers and vets, including healthier sheep, better welfare and increased profits,” she adds.
As shepherd at Rampisham Manor Farms, Dorset, Gareth Beynon has been working closely with Miss Gascoigne in the health planning of the farm’s flock.
Since working at the farm over the past two years, Mr Beynon has increased ewe numbers from 300 to 1,200 with 400 ewe lambs and has just finished his second lambing on the farm.
Opting for Welsh Mountain ewes, Mr Beynon has been putting a Bluefaced Leicester ram to these females to create a Welsh Mule to then tup with a terminal sire.
Mr Beynon says: “The flock at Rampisham is the first I have been solely responsible for. I work closely with Emily, rarely calling with problems, but rather to make plans. We also have an annual meeting to review my flock health plan.
“I am part of the large flock group and also took part in the lamb loss survey. Measuring and monitoring within the flock makes you just think about what you are doing, so you are not just plodding along. You need to work at your performance, which is made possible by working with a vet who understands your flock. It is not like I see the vet every week; I do not have to because it is all planned out.”
Mr Beynon says drenching has been something which has been addressed on-farm.
He adds: “We used to drench a lot more than we do now, but through Emily’s advice we have been able to reduce the number of times we drench throughout the year. The ewes look better than ever, we are addressing anthelmintic resistance and we are saving money.”