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Lameness in sheep - don’t allow your profits to limp away

Lameness in sheep - don’t allow your profits to limp away

How easy sheep farming would be if we didn’t have to deal with lame sheep! Lameness is a significant issue on many sheep farms, writes Michael Gottstein, Head of Sheep Programme at Teagasc, who questions is it time you made some changes to your lameness control strategy?

Walsh Scholar Jake Delaney is looking at lameness on various sheep farms in Ireland.  Having spent a day on farm with Jake recently, we drafted off just over 80 sheep out of a flock of 400 (ewes and lambs) that were identified as being lame. This represented 20% of the flock that was underperforming and in some cases losing weight due to the pain caused by the infection present in one or more feet.

What causes lameness in sheep?

Mostly lameness is caused by infections. What Jake is seeing on most farms is a mixture of scald, footrot and in some cases contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD). There will also be some cases of lameness as a result of injury, swollen joints etc., but these tend to be much less frequent, generally less than 10% of cases.

Given that most causes of lameness on sheep farms are infectious, the timeliness of treatments is critical in terms of achieving a speedy resolution. In effect, the sheep that is lame with a mild scald today will have a severe scald next week and a deep seated footrot infection the following week. Treating sheep promptly is important but requires good facilities.

Twenty years working in the sheep advisory sector has shown me that flocks that have good handling facilities have low incidences of lameness. The infections don’t get a chance on these farms because the sheep are foot bathed effectively every time they are in the yard.  On these farms, we rarely see lameness levels above 5% compared to the 10-20% that we are commonly seeing as part of the current study.

So what are the options for sheep farmers struggling with lame sheep? The following are the steps to get on top of lameness in the flock:

  1. Identify lame sheep and treat them.
    • Simple scalds can be treated by footbathing.
    • Footrot and CODD will need antibiotic treatment as advised by your vet.
  2. If possible, separate lame sheep from the rest of the bunch. This is difficult to do at present when ewes have lambs at foot, but should be easily done after weaning.
  3. Repeat treatments as advised by your vet until the infection has been cured.
  4. Stop paring feet. This makes the situation worse and spreads the infection to other sheep. I know this is a hard sell for farmers who have been paring sheep for many years but it is backed up by strong scientific evidence.
  5. Construct a batch footbath so that sheep can be foot bathed in larger numbers. Walk through footbaths are not effective. We need the sheep to be able to stand in the footbath for a period of time. The solution strength should be 10% (1kg copper or zinc sulphate per 10L of water).
  6. Foot bath sheep every time they are in the yard for flock health treatments or drafting.
  7. Consider culling repeat offenders once the flock incidence is reduced to less than 5%.
  8. Vaccination against footrot is also an option but it is expensive and will not protect lambs against scald so footbathing will still have to be carried out.

Flocks that currently have significant lameness issues will require a lot of time, effort and money in the initial stages to get on top of the issue. Once the level of lameness in the flock drops to less than 5%, it becomes very easy to stay on top of it with regular foot bathing.

Farmers who have put the effort in to getting on top of lameness and have effective foot bathing facilities generally only regret that they did not take this course of action years earlier. Think of all the time you spend treating lame sheep, think about all the time, feed and resources that are wasted looking after sheep that are not performing to their full potential because they are lame. Is it time you made some changes? Talk to your advisor about putting in place a plan to reduce lameness in your flock. 

Also read: Knowing the chemical fertiliser limit for your farm

Also read: An update from Brian Keane's BETTER Sheep Farm