How a farm has reduced lameness to 2% in an open flock

The Mouland family have reduced lameness from 10% to 2% and cut antibiotic use by 30% by addressing the challenge of operating an open flock proactively.

Michael, Jo and their son, Richard, run a large flock of 2,300 North Country Mules at Horn Farm, near Chard.

They have always sourced between 200 and 300 ewe lamb replacements annually. But this comes with inherent disease management challenges, admits Richard Mouland.

One of the biggest headaches has been managing lameness which peaked at about 10% four to five years ago.

See also: Why farmers should tackle sheep lameness before summer spike

In line with FAI Farms’ Five-Point Plan they have adopted strict quarantine protocols, developed a strict culling policy and put away foot-trimming knives to help combat this.

Farm facts

  • 2,300 North Country Mules, switching to Romneys
  • Lambing outdoors in April
  • Ewes mated to Sufftex, Suffolk and Dorset Easycare rams
  • Tenant farmers, farming 729ha (1,800 acres)
  • Growing 154ha (380 acres) of wheat, barley, beans and maize
  • 225 Angus and Hereford-cross suckler cows
  • 150 dairy calves bought each year and taken through to finishing
  • Finished lambs and cattle sold to ABP.

Buying-in policy and quarantine procedures

Charlotte and Richard Mouland © Synergy Farm Health

Richard’s wife, Charlotte Mouland, who is a vet with Synergy Farm Health, and her colleague, sheep specialist Emily Gascoigne, have helped develop strict quarantine standards as part of a comprehensive flock health plan.  

In recent years the family have moved away from buying replacements at market in favour of buying ewe lambs from one known source.

This farmer is proactively screening for iceberg diseases and doesn’t common-graze sheep.

The vendor also guarantees the lambs receive their first Heptavac P dose to control clostridial disease and pasteurellosis before they arrive.

Bought-in sheep are kept separate from the main flock until they are two-tooth.

They also undergo a comprehensive vaccination programme and are fully vaccinated against enzootic abortion and toxoplasmosis.  

Prompt treatment and regular prevention

Any lame ewes are separated from the main flocks to prevent infection spread and are treated promptly with antibiotics.

“Knowing where the bugs are within your flock and keeping those sheep isolated from the main flock is important,” says Miss Gascoigne, who adds that having ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ groups also makes culling decisions much easier.

Furthermore, sheep are foot-bathed at least monthly, or every time they are collected in the farmyard, to reduce infection pressure. A move to outdoor lambing has also aided this.

“Gathering sheep is high-risk because you are running lots of sheep in a small area. The footbath is used as much as a disinfectant to prevent active infection,” says Miss Gascoigne.

Culling and foot-trimming

Ewes are culled after their second lameness event.

“It’s hard to start with because you are getting rid of quite a large number of ewes, but it has definitely made a difference,” says Mr Mouland.

Owing to the flock size, individual recording hasn’t been carried out. Instead, ewes are ear-notched or marked with spray to identify these repeat offenders.

“At weaning, we also look at misshapen feet,” adds Mrs Mouland.

“Addressing lameness is a gift that keeps on giving because it means you can go up a notch with culling decisions,” says Miss Gascoigne.

Routine foot-trimming is no longer carried out because research shows this can transmit infection from sheep to sheep.

“One of our toughest battles has been persuading Dad to put his shears away,” admits Mr Mouland.

“Trimming wasn’t doing anything other than make me feel better about myself. Now the sheep get better on their feet quicker and it’s one less job to do,” he adds.

Lameness scoring

Emily Gascoigne © Synergy Farm Health

Miss Gascoigne visits the farm quarterly for half a day at key times – normally before tupping, at scanning, lambing, and around eight weeks post-lambing – to mobility-score sheep.

Mobility scoring at tupping is key because it allows early identification and separation of lame ewes before lactation.

This ensures infection doesn’t pass to lambs during lactation and create a vicious cycle of infection, she says.

“Lame ewes this year were kept separate from tupping and they are still separated from the main flocks now,” explains Mr Mouland.

“The mobility score at tupping is the most important to ensure everything is set up for a successful lambing and lactation,” adds Miss Gascoigne.

Improvements

Because lameness prevalence during lactation is low, lameness in lambs has been reduced, which has accelerated finishing times.

“Last April, we had 1,000 hoggs left. This year, we only had 300 and they were all gone by the end of April.

“Our ewes also maintain condition a lot better than they used to – they are more even throughout the year,” says Mr Mouland.

Future

The plan longer term is to close the flock and breed their own replacements to improve flock health.

As part of this plan, the Moulands purchased 60 Romneys a couple of years ago and plan to buy a further 200 to 300 this year, breed them pure and build up numbers.  

They also believe Romneys will better cope with the challenging environment.

Mr Mouland explains: “Most of our grazing is permanent pasture, which is in various environment schemes.

“It’s decent parkland at best and the Mules are not thriving nutritionally, whereas it’s a struggle to keep condition off the Romneys.”

He says the input from Miss Gascoigne has been invaluable.

“By adopting this proactive approach under Emily’s expert eye – and because of our sound quarantine procedures for bought-in ewe lambs – we were able to turn the lameness problem around.

“Sheep farmers are pretty bad at using the vet, but the visits have more than paid for themselves with the antibiotic reduction,” he adds.

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