22 October 1999

Formalised plan can help in fight against lameness

By James Garner

LAME sheep are the cause of more phone calls to the RSPCA than any other aspect of livestock production.

The problem might be a particular bane to the public, but for shepherds controlling the problem it is equally so. It is possible to control foot-rot and scald, but it is more difficult to rid it from your flock, says Mark Robins, farm manager at Moulton College, Northampton.

Giving your shepherd a formalised plan to help him focus on foot care as an issue can help, he says. In co-operation with his vet and independent sheep consultant Lesley Stubbings, Mr Robins has embarked on a health plan that includes a strategy to curtail lameness.

Having identified it as a health issue he needs to address, Mr Robins now has a 12-month, week-by-week plan to tackle it. "Ms Stubbings drew up a draft plan, which the three of us and my shepherd went through.

"It was important that the colleges shepherd, Stefan Marks, was involved as I did not want the plan to be the only way to do things. It had to be built on a foundation of common sense and not just an academic point of view."

Mr Robins is realistic about his objectives. "We have a flying flock of 800 North Country Mules, so we will always be buying-in ewes and will, therefore, always be faced with a foot problem.

"It is down to what level of tolerance you can accept. We set a lameness target of 1-2%, which still means you will see a few hobbling."

According to Ms Stubbings, a level of 5% lame sheep in flocks constitutes a problem.

Scald is the main cause of lame sheep in the Moulton College flock, which Mr Robins believes is partly caused by the coarseness of pastures.

With this in mind the colleges vet has set up a protocol for lameness control. The critical period is pre-tupping. There is little point tupping ewes that are lame, as they have a temperature and are unlikely to hold to service, he says.

"At this point in the sheep year we have a mega-blitz on ewes, turning them up to crutch and check their feet. Anything that is lame is put into a quarantine flock, which is kept on a isolated paddock behind my house so that I can look at them all the time, which is not a bad thing."

The temptation is for these ewes to be located far away from the farm. That should be avoided, as they are easily forgotten about, he says. "Special attention is needed to get ewes feet right and it is easier to footbath them when they are close to the farm."

Every infected or sore foot is pared and ewes are foot-bathed in zinc sulphate solution and stand for at least two minutes in the bath before drying off on concrete and returning to the paddock.

Badly infected ewes are given antibiotics and antiseptic sprays, which is nothing new, says Mr Robins, just good stockmanship.

The hospital group is dynamic, with infected ewes coming in, and going out as they improve. Any ewes that do not recover will not be tupped and remain in the hospital group. Those that never improve will be culled, he says.

"I hope that by culling those with chronic feet, the problem will be eliminated." But the threat remains from bought-in ewes, he says.

"We question our supplier, who I have purchased ewes from for some-time. He has a strict foot care policy and would not sell us anything that is lame."

When replacements arrive on-farm, they remain apart from the rest of the flock until after tupping. "We are lucky that we have a lot of paddocks and enough ram power to do this."

Tups are not excluded. In fact they have extra treatment because of their susceptibility to lameness. "It is important that they can walk well to be able to get around ewes at mating, so they are vaccinated prior to peak incidence of the problem in spring." Once again, Mr Robins relies on the credibility of his supplier. "I would not use the same supplier if 50% of rams I bought went lame."

Despite the in-depth involvement of his vet, Mr Robins expects no more visits than usual. "We try to keep our vet and med costs under £5 a ewe; last year it was £4.50 a ewe.

"Establishing a proactive relationship with him may mean that we pay more this year to set up the health plan, but hopefully this will be recouped in years to come." &#42

FOOT-ROT CONTROL

&#8226 Separate lame sheep.

&#8226 Separate bought-in sheep.

&#8226 Dont forget tups.