How Glos farm reduced lamb losses to half the UK average

Gloucestershire sheep farmers Martin and Pauhla Whitaker have been placing a big emphasis on flock health, in the belief that if animals are healthy it will help them be more productive and therefore more profitable and resilient for an uncertain future.

This approach is working, with lamb losses at Overtown Farm, Cranham, Gloucestershire, sitting at 7% for the past three years, less than half the estimated UK average of 15%, although many believe the true figure is nearer 25%.

“Five percent is my holy grail,” says Mrs Whitaker, who runs 370 ewes, the majority of which are mules bred to Texel, Vendeen and Lleyn-cross Texel sires.

See also: More case studies, advice and tips about sheep farming in the Know How centre

Farm facts: Overtown Farm, Cranham, Gloucestershire

  • Tenant farmers of National Trust
  • Fully certified organic
  • Selling most stock finished through Organic Livestock Marketing Co-operative
  • April-lambing flock, lambed indoors
  • 370 ewes – originally Scotch Half bred crossed with Lleyn and Texel. Started crossing with a Blue Faced Leicester in 2012 to produce Mules.
  • 60 suckler cows, finishing all beef stock
  • 16ha arable

Their sheep vet, Phillipa Page of Flock Health, has instilled an attitude of spending on prevention rather than reacting to illness – “good spend” rather than “bad spend” – something the Whitakers are very much on board with as they are both keen to minimise any contribution to the risk of anthelmintic and antibiotic resistance.

Areas of improvement

Flock health planning is all about having a good relationship and regular engagement with a sheep vet who has access to current, evidence-based information, says Mrs Page, who runs her own flock with her husband in Gloucestershire alongside her veterinary consultancy work.

“It’s shifted from a standard paper exercise to a proactive method of engagement,” she says. “There’s always a vet and med spend with livestock – it’s just how it’s spent.”

This year it has paid dividends at Overtown Farm where the flock is lambed indoors, the bulk of it in April. Recently weighed lambs were achieving growth weights of 300-400g/day and the first draw sold was in early July.

Lamb mortality is forecast to be higher than in the past few years – it is at 11% losses since scanning, but this is not surprising given the challenging year.

Mrs Whitaker says the issue now is working out how much of that was avoidable, if any, and forming a plan to minimise avoidable losses next year. She adds that a lot of their planning is about sorting out niggling problems and fine-tuning protocols to achieve marginal gains.

Three of the main areas the farm and vet team have made improvements are:

  • Newborn lamb care
  • Parasite management
  • Quarantine protocol

Newborn lamb care improvements

  • Using a Brix refractometer to check colostrum revealed that some ewes might be pumping out milk but the colostrum quality was actually quite poor, so Mrs Whitaker now aims to supplement that with harvested or powdered colostrum.
  • Getting quality colostrum to lambs at the right time, making sure they get it as soon as possible after birth and continuing to get it to them for 24 hours if necessary.
  • Harvesting more colostrum from ewes, as Mrs Whitaker doesn’t feel powdered colostrum does the lambs as well.
  • Focusing on hygiene to keep disease levels to a minimum and control any watery mouth outbreaks if they occur. The farm is potentially up against a base level of infection in the lambing shed because it is used to house cattle over the winter. They have struggled with E coli in the past, but are now preventing it and can control is quickly if there is an outbreak.

Hygiene protocols which have helped get lamb losses at lambing down to 3%-4% are:

  • Using lime in the lambing shed to keep pens drier and improve the atmosphere in what can be quite a damp and foggy area.
  • Bedding down lambing pens twice a day.
  • Disinfecting stomach tubes after each use and keeping a separate tube for sick lambs.

Parasite management

  • Using Fecpak technology to assess parasite burden – the tool allows faecal egg counting (FEC) to be done on farm rather than in a laboratory.
  • The first FEC will be done after about six to seven weeks when the lambs are really grazing, and then a mob sample will be done every three weeks to monitor burden.
  • If the FEC reaches 550-600 eggs/gram the Whitakers will seek Mrs Page’s advice on treatment.
  • Typically, they will use a white drench in June, because they know they have an issue with nematodirus on the farm, and then a yellow wormer subsequently as necessary, checking for no resistance by conducting a FEC reduction test. If resistance to the active ingredients of the yellow group of wormers is found then they will have to rely on an orange wormer.

Quarantine

The protocol at Overtown is to:

  • Source carefully.
  • Worm, treat for scab and keep in for 48 hours before turning out in isolation for at least three weeks.
  • Vaccinate, working on the principal “if you didn’t do it yourself, it hasn’t been done”.

A close shave with scab

Having a quarantine protocol in place helped stave off a serious scab issue with a bought-in tup a few years ago.

The tup was bought from a reputable source, brought back to the farm, quarantined and then put in with the other rams.

Four days before the rams were due to go in with the ewes, a couple of the tups starting scratching, and scrapings taken that day revealed scab.

As a result, following treatment, tupping was moved back by 18 days. Had the rams gone in with the ewes, they suspect they would have still been tackling the scab at lambing time.

Because of the flock’s organic status, the Whitakers have to get an annual derogation to use a clear wormer that is effective against scab for use on bought-in rams.

Recording and research

The Whttakers’ use of EID technology and rigorous recording allows them to monitor body condition scores at weaning, drafting, scanning and lambing.

Previously only underperforming ewes were body-condition scored at lambing, but this year they were all recorded, as were lamb birth weights for the first time.

This information, in addition to the continual weighing of lambs, should give a wealth of data by the end of the year.

This will help inform decisions on replacement ewes and terminal sires for the next generation of the Overtown flock, which might get them that bit closer to Mrs Whitaker’s holy grail of 5%.

Efficient treatment

When you have clinical disease, timely and appropriate treatment is required, and arguably each treatment can be seen as an investment as it prevents further cases.

However, the real challenge is to prevent the cases occurring in the first place.

This can be seen with lameness and abortion in ewes.

Bad vet/med spending versus good

Disease: Lameness

Lameness is the cause of the majority of antibiotics use on sheep farms, according to a recent survey. Lameness is infectious: one lame sheep leads to several more lame sheep, so the problem increases and treatment costs escalate.

Bad: Repeated bottles of antibiotics to treat too many lame animals in a flock where lameness is poorly controlled. 

This is also irresponsible use of antibiotics.

Good: Putting a plan in place with your vet to prevent the spread of lameness and protect the flock.

Prevention may mean using a targeted disinfecting foot-bath.

Protection may mean vaccinating the flock in the short term or breeding more lameness-resilient sheep in the long term.

Disease: Enzootic abortion in ewes (EAE)

In 2017 there were 3.5 million replacements in the UK flock but only one million of these were protected by EAE vaccine. Anyone who buys in replacements is at risk of also buying in EAE and hence having an issue with abortion.

Bad: Whole flock treatment with an antibiotic every year a few weeks before the start of lambing to control EAE. 

Using antibiotics in this way exposes large numbers of healthy animals to an unnecessary injection of antibiotics and doesn’t make sense financially.

The approximate cost of treating 100 ewes with antibiotics every year for four years is £90/year or £360 in total.

Good: Vaccinating all replacement ewes with a vaccine against both enzootic abortion and toxoplasmosis. These generally need to be given only once in a lifetime, reducing the risk of abortion in subsequent years.

The cost of vaccinating 100 ewes once with a vaccine against enzootic abortion is £246.

 

Source: Flock Health