Following the outbreak of bluetongue in the UK, debate over the value of vaccinations is hitting the headlines again.
Sheep farmers are being bombarded with advice from government, vets and animal health specialists to vaccinate their animals against an ever-wider array of illnesses and diseases.
Given the dangers posed by conditions such as bluetongue, pasteurella and clostridia, the benefits of vaccination are clear. What is less obvious is whether there is any value in vaccinating against non-life-threatening diseases, such as footrot.
At present, it is estimated only 16% of the national flock is vaccinated regularly against footrot – one of the main causes of lameness in sheep. But at a cost of 70p an animal, the decision to vaccinate against footrot is not taken lightly.
So are the few farmers who are vaccinating against the disease wasting their money, or is it a wise investment? According to Richard and Robert Morris of Golfa Farm, Llangedwyn, Oswestry, on the Shropshire/Powys border, it is a sensible move.
The Morris brothers farm 400ha (1000 acres), running a 150-cow dairy herd, 80 beef animals and 2000 Mule and Lleyn ewes. As with most sheep farms, the Golfa flock experiences varying degrees of lameness throughout the year, with incidence increasing at lambing time and when troughs are used to feed concentrates.
“At any time of the year when sheep are brought together, we always see lameness rates rise as the footrot virus is spread from one animal to the next,” says Richard Morris.
“Two years ago, in the run-up to lambing, we had more lame ewes than usual and were struggling to cope with the additional work. We were spending a lot of time turning sheep over to inspect and treat their feet.”
Having discussed the problem with other farmers, the brothers decided vaccination was the way forward and one dose of vaccine was given to each ewe before tupping. Tups were given two doses six months apart, in May and October.
In the two years since they started vaccinating, the brothers have experienced the benefits of vaccination first-hand. “The biggest advantage is we simply don’t have to turn as many sheep over to inspect their feet,” says Robert. “We have also used fewer tups this year and lameness among ewes has fallen from more than 10% to less than 2%. Lambing percentage has also improved, with the Mules now at 200% and the Lleyns at 165%.”
If the brothers were ever in any doubt about the effectiveness of vaccination, their own trial work gave a clear answer. Last year a group of 200 yearlings was sent to pasture for 10 months without being vaccinated.
“When we brought these animals back to the farm, 25% of them were showing some signs of lameness, and a handful were extremely lame,” says Richard. “We spent the next couple of days doing nothing but trimming their feet and walking them through a footbath. We also had to give each lamb a dose of antibiotics. The costs were enormous.”
But despite this success, there is still a strong temptation to save money by not vaccinating the flock this year.
“We contemplated not vaccinating this year in an attempt to save some money, but that would have been the wrong thing to do,” says Richard. “With such a busy farm and so little labour available, anything that saves us work is priceless. We have decided the cost is worth it and will be vaccinating our animals again this year.”