Winning the abortion war
The full impact of abortion on flock profits is felt
far beyond lost income caused by premature lamb
deaths. But a Lancashire flock has finally got to
grips with the problem. Jeremy Hunt reports
BY the time William Pye had finished lambing 350 ewes in early February he admitted it was the best lambing time hed had for years: "At last weve got abortion under control."
He runs Tarnwater Farm, Ashton-with Stodday, near Lancaster with his father Bill and capitalises on early grass in this north-west coastal belt for an early lambing flock of predominantly Suffolk x Half-bred ewes.
But the high cost system, which looks for lambs making £50-plus by mid-April, has been hit hard in recent years by enzootic abortion and toxoplasmosis.
Originally based on Masham and North of England Mule ewes, the Pyes decided to change to Suffolk x Half-breds eight years ago to combat abortion risks by running a closed flock and breeding their own replacements.
"We decided that if we bought Scotch Half-bred ewes and bred our own replacements using the Suffolk we would be minimising abortion risk.
"Replacement ewe lambs by the Suffolk would be exposed to any abortion infection and we expected to gradually see an end to the problem," he says.
But that was not the case. And even last years scanning showed that 160 ewes were only carrying singles and at lambing time there were at least 30 abortion cases.
"Even though we were breeding our own replacements, had switched to wrapped square bales of hay to avoid contamination from cats and were being meticulous about hygiene at lambing time, we just could not get on top of it.
"Unfortunately we were learning to live with it and if ewes aborted and had no milk we were getting £50 for them as culls – but that still didnt make up for the extra work and financial losses we were incurring.
"What made it even more frustrating was the lack of any positive diagnosis resulting from dead lambs we were sending into the Ministry vet lab.
"No one was specific about what the problem was or how we should deal with it."
The January lambing flock was finding ewes slipping lambs about two weeks before full term. But the large number of weakly lambs meant a lot of extra time had to be devoted to keeping them alive.
"I wouldnt like to count the man-hours we spent putting lambs in the warming-box, getting up every two hours during the night to feed weak lambs only to find them dead the next day. It was crippling the system."
But lamb losses – either premature or through weak lambs – was not the only problem.
A lot of ewes were short of milk, would be weak and unsteady and often lie on their lambs, and there was a high incidence of watery mouth.
"I could go out to the lambing shed and find four lambs that had been laid on because ewes were not feeling 100% and were just not up to rearing lambs," says Mr Pye.
Some success against watery mouth was achieved by giving ewes an additional vaccination – in addition to their clostridial jab. But the vaccine is no longer available and the Pyes faced the prospect of this years lambing with no extra protection against watery mouth.
"We knew we could not go on without doing something to try and get to the root cause of these lamb losses and decided to vaccinate 300 ewes against abortion at a cost of £1500."
Expensive but necessary
Ewes were injected at the end of July – about three weeks before tupping. "Vaccination is expensive but the situation had got so bad we had to do something."
Last March six ewes that had lost lambs were blood tested. Four were positive for toxoplasma and two were positive for enzootic abortion.
There were about 600 ewes on the farm at that time and it was decided to vaccinate 300 of the youngest sheep against both enzootic abortion and toxoplasma.
"The difference has been tremendous. We have had the best lambing time in 10 years. Not just because of fewer lamb losses but we havent had all the frustration and wasted time dealing with poorly ewes and weakly lambs," he says.
Mr Pye reckoned hed only had two abortion cases by the time hed lambed the first 300 ewes this year.
• Continuing problem.
• Tackled by vaccinating.
• Cost £1500 for 300 ewes.