Sheep health expert reveals cost of lameness

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Leading sheep health expert Dr Fiona Lovatt recently addressed a group of sheep farmers from the border region about the crucial role of good flock health management in reducing lameness and maximising farm profitability.

The meeting was organised by O’Dowd Veterinary Clinic in conjunction with MSD Animal Health, which manufactures vaccines such as Footvax® for virulent footrot.

Gerry ODowd of ODowd Veterinary Practice, Dr Fiona Lovatt and MSD Animal Health Technical Adviser Joanne Cregg.

Gerry ODowd of ODowd Veterinary Practice, Dr Fiona Lovatt and MSD Animal Health Technical Adviser Joanne Cregg.

Dr Lovatt said that whilst some sheep farmers can be reluctant to invest in preventative veterinary medicine for their flock, financial modelling clearly demonstrates that investing in vaccination against footrot has a significant cost benefit where lameness due to footrot affects more than 2% of the flock.

“Many farmers consider whether they can afford the cost of a vaccination, whereas a more pertinent question is – can you afford to have lame sheep?” said Dr Lovatt.

“When compared with the cost of replacements or feed, the vet and medical costs generally represent a very low proportion of the flock’s variable costs. Treatment costs, specifically due to the treatment of sick or lame sheep, should be kept to a minimum. However, this is only achievable if the flock has made wise investment in preventative health measures such as vaccination.

“The cost of lameness can be divided into treatment costs, such as labour and medicine, control costs, for example foot-bathing to stop the spread, and production costs. The costs of lost production due to lameness are always the most significant of these costs. A lame ewe will have a lower conception rate, will produce less colostrum and less milk, and in turn the lambs won’t thrive and it will take them a long time to finish. Cutting the lameness cycle with a preventative approach will therefore have a huge impact on productivity and profitability.”

The most common causes of lameness include Scald/Strip, footrot, CODD (Contagious Ovine Digital Dermatitis), Shelly Hoof, White Line Abscess and Toe Granuloma. Footrot, which has a characteristic smell and almost always starts between the digits, is exceptionally common and generally well recognised by farmers.

CODD, usually starting at the top of the foot with an ulcer which rapidly spreads resulting in the hooves coming off, is much less well-recognised by farmers but unfortunately is becoming more and more common - usually arriving on farm with bought-in sheep.

Dr Lovatt went through various scenarios on the Reading University Footrot model (http://www.fhpmodels.reading.ac.uk), which calculates the cost benefit of various control measures against lameness. The model shows that foot-bathing alone offers no cost benefit to the farmer. The greatest cost benefit to be realised is when farmers vaccinate once a year against footrot, as well as promptly catching and treating lame ewes with antibiotics.

“Farmers who have the most success with minimising lameness on farm adhere strictly to the five-point plan – Avoid spread, Treat quickly, Quarantine, Vaccinate and Cull. Strict record-keeping is essential in order to identify sheep which are suffering from repeat incidences of lameness, as these animals should be swiftly removed from the flock.

“Lameness is painful, costly and infectious, but you can do something about it,” she continued. “The figures prove that it’s worth spending on prevention, not just treating sick animals when it’s necessary. I would also encourage farmers to keep in regular contact with their vet to ensure a good flow of information as this will help keep costs due to lameness to a minimum,” Dr Lovatt concluded.