Lameness is one of the key welfare challenges facing the UK sheep industry, which is why Welsh lamb producer Huw Llandre from Cwrt-y-Cadno, Carmarthenshire, was keen to participate in a practical study to evaluate the benefits of a new footrot control protocol.
“Lameness can cause intense pain and distress to the sheep. It is a visible problem and not the image of sheep farming we want to portray. It is also time consuming for farmers, so anything we can do to improve the situation will tackle the welfare issue and save costs. When a sheep is lame, it is not productive.”
Mr Llandre is one of the first sheep farmers to evaluate a practical lameness control protocol developed by a Sussex producer, but being assessed on commercial sheep units by FAI Farms in Oxford.
“Like most sheep farmers, we have footrot and scald problems – to such an extent that about a quarter of the 600-ewe flock will have been lame at some point over a 12-month period. At its worst, we had to cope with about 10 sheep being lame at any one time.
“We’ve experimented with various control measures, including footbathing, but have never had a particularly co-ordinated approach to the problem,” says Mr Llandre.
According to Ruth Clements, consultant vet to FAI Farms, the new control protocol is practical, with the focus on a whole-flock approach and disease prevention.
“It involves culling persistent offenders, improved biosecurity and vaccination with Footvax bi-annually. A year on, we are seeing significant improvements on our three trial farms,” she says.
FAI Farms has also calculated the direct costs of footrot, saying the disease is costing as much as £8.38 a ewe. Last year, Mr Llandre treated 155 ewes for footrot and scald, equating to £1180.
“Unfortunately, these direct costs are only a fraction of the total price tag for the disease,” Ms Clements says. “We know that lame sheep are costly both in time and antibiotic treatment, but the indirect costs, such as poor performance, mount up, making lameness a significant limiting factor to many flocks’ productivity and profit.”
More than a year into the footrot control programme, Mr Llandre is already seeing significant improvements. “Last autumn we hardly had any lameness, although in the housing period pre-lambing we had a significant spike. However, the improvement has been maintained over the summer and our lameness level now is about 1%,” he says.
As the project progresses, as well as continuing to evaluate the success of the control protocol, FAI Farms plans to quantify the indirect costs of lameness. Mr Llandre has embraced EID technology as a management tool and is keen to exploit the benefits to assess the impact of lameness on lamb growth rates, for example.
“Many farmers underestimate the numbers of lame sheep they have to treat in a year. We hope by quantifying these figures on the trial units and building a better picture of the true costs of the disease, we can alert people to the significant value of a preventative approach,” Ms Clements adds.