25 July 1997

Dry cow therapy works on sheep, but too dear

Good management at weaning is vital to ensure ewes can successfully rear two or more lambs in subsequent years on one Oxon unit. Emma Penny reports

DRY cow therapy and antibiotics have both been used with success at weaning in one Oxfordshire sheep flock, but are too expensive to continue using as margins are squeezed.

Stephen Hart, who runs 1000 Hartline ewes across the 550ha (1360 acres) at Hammonds Farm, Checkendon, Oxon, is keen to ensure all ewes can cope with twins, so maintaining udder health is vital.

"We have high output ewes, with a lambing percentage of 184 over the past 25 years. Every single loses money, unless it is a top pedigree. We do not want ewes which will only rear a single because of udder concerns."

The mid-March born lambs at Hammonds Farm are usually weaned in late July. "We shed lambs off and then check all the ewes."

Maintaining good udder health prompted him to consider dry cow therapy. "We did not want to cull more ewes than necessary through udder concerns.

"Each ewe is turned and her udder carefully checked. The teats are drawn to ensure milk is normal and all appears in order. A half tube of dry cow therapy is inserted in each teat, but this can be difficult, as ewes struggle, and the teat entrance is small, as tube-ends are designed for cows," says Mr Hart.

"Dry cow therapy did help prevent post-weaning mastitis and ensure ewes with faulty udders at lambing were rare."

Apart from cost and extra work, dose accuracy was also a concern. "Tubes often had a lot of air in them. It soon became obvious that the two sides of the udder had received vastly different doses. A reduced dose is probably adequate, but only if it can be accurate. Sadly, the market for dry cow therapy for sheep is too small to justify R&D and licensing a specialised product."

Dry cow therapy also added significantly to vet costs. "We could probably afford to cull quite hard for the cost – and reduce hassle – but that would increase replacement rate."

Dry cow therapy cost 20p a ewe in additional labour, £1.30 for the tube. This is set against higher cull rates, increasing from 22% to about 24%, at about £55 a ewe (gimmer price less cull value), and the additional cost of fostering, adding up to £1.20 a ewe.

Cost and work pressures led Mr Hart to try blanket antibiotic injections as a cheaper, easier alternative at weaning last year.

But that was only partially successful, he says. "It seemed to be better than nothing, but less effective than dry cow treatment. We still had about 1% of ewes with a faulty udder at lambing."

Both dry cow therapy and antibiotics added substantial costs, he says. "Both are difficult to justify, particularly as margins are becoming tighter." This year Mr Hart plans to keep costs to a minimum, and will use neither dry cow therapy nor antibiotics.

"The economics of sheep wont allow their use. And although mastitis concerns were reduced, the time and cost involved meant there was little demonstrable benefit."

Dry cow therapy to cut mastitis is too expensive, says Stephen Hart.