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Lameness in Sheep

Given the increased focus in Ireland on lameness in sheep and the likely disappearance of Formalin in the near future producers need to start looking at other options for footbathing.  Lameness can cost €1000 per 100 ewe flock with lameness levels rising during the summer months due to the higher stocking rate, longer grass and damp conditions. On local sheep farms the main two causal agents of lameness are footrot and scald. These represent approximately 90% of all cases. The remaining 10% arise from various different infections and other causes such as injuries.  Farmers who change their management to include footbathing as part of a sheep lameness control plan will benefit from a reduction in lame sheep and a subsequent increase in profits.

It is possible to successfully control footrot in your sheep. This is because the bacteria that cause footrot cannot live in the absence of the sheep for more than two weeks. Therefore, by eliminating footrot from the sheep and moving them to ‘clean’ ground (where there have been no sheep for the previous two weeks), it should be possible to eliminate the footrot bacteria from the holding. That’s the theory – in practice there are usually a few chronically infected sheep on the farm that act as reservoirs of infection and keep the cycle going. As soon as these are identified they should be separated and treated individually.  Separate lame sheep from healthy sheep as scald and foot rot are highly infectious.

Use a combination of sprays, paring and antibiotic injections (consult your vet) to treat foot infections.  Sheep that are lame should be identified quickly, separated from the main flock and treated intensely.  Antibiotic and non antibiotic methods can be used for individual sheep, consult your vet about the most effective antibiotic spray or injection.

Routine prevention footbaths should be done on average once a month and when there is an increased risk every two weeks. Footbathing should be done once a week when sheep are housed.  An effective footbath is an essential part of any sheep handling unit. When using the footbath it is important to have the correct concentration of solution and adequate height to ensure the hoof is fully immersed. The depth of the footbath is of paramount importance. In the case of sheep, the minimum footbath depth should be 3 inches. It is advised that you fill 1.5-2 inches above the minimum fill level, so as to account for spillage as the animals walk through. Where the sheep are just being walked through the footbath (i.e. not standing in it for a period of time) the footbath should ideally be longer.  To achieve the best results, send them through the footbath every 2-6 weeks depending on risk level.  Once the sheep have been foot bathed it is a good idea to allow them to stand on a clean dry surface for as long as is practical. 

Hoofsure Endurance is a safe footbath solution containing organic acids, tea tree oil and wetting agents, and is finding favour with leading sheep producers throughout Ireland.  It is available in 5 litre, 10 litre, 20 and 205 litre drums.  It costs approximately 60 cents per sheep per year.

A recent independent study showed that 65% of sheep with feet problems showed improvement after one pass through a footbath containing Hoofsure Endurance at 2%.

When using Hoofsure Endurance a 1% dilution rate is required, so with a 100 litre bath (average size), only 1 litre is needed. As a general rule, 400 sheep passes can be achieved through a 100 litre footbath provided depth is maintained.  It costs approximately 60 cents per sheep per year.  If lameness problems persist Hoofsure Endurance can be used at 2% dilution rate.

The Hoofsure range includes two products for individual application on affected feet.  Hoofsure Combat foot spray contains tea tree oil and organic acids, and when dry forms a sanitising long-lasting film.  It costs approximately 30 cents per application. Hoofsure Konquest is a potent gel based on organic acids, tea tree oil and a penetrating agent, which is now available in convenient cost-effective 15g and 30g syringes.   It costs approximately 80 cents per application.

Managing Lameness: Key tips from veterinary lameness specialist

Lameness is one of the most common debilitating health issues for dairy cattle. According to Cattle Health and Welfare Group Report (2018) approximately 30% of dairy cattle will be affected with lameness during their lifetime. 

Several factors are associated with lameness in dairy cows including genetics, the environment and management.  Management can be particularly important with low body condition score (BCS) and previous lameness events being major risk factors.  There are four types or causes that lead to most dairy lameness issues: digital dermatitis, sole bruising, sole ulcers, and white line disease.  Digital dermatitis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria called treponemes, spiral-shaped microorganism found on most dairies around the world.  Classical signs of this painful disease include raw, red, oval shaped lesions typically found on the back of the cow’s heel but they can appear as a range of warty or scabby lesions on the skin of the foot. Often lots of interdigital growths is what is seen first. Outbreaks happen mostly when animals are in consistently  wet and dirty conditions.  Digital dermatitis has significant economic impacts on the dairy with an estimated cost per case of approx. £80 and often affecting around 40% of cows in the herd.  This does not include lifetime effects such as development of other lesions like and necrotic hoof lesions either as these are yet to be fully defined by the industry.  While there is no method of eradicating this lameness causing disease, digital dermatitis can certainly be managed if you know what to look for.


Focus on Dry Cows and Heifers

Quite often the simplest and most effective digital dermatitis control starts with heifers and dry cows.  Many farmers can control this disease very well in the milking herd, but if you have heifers and dry cows coming in with fresh active lesions, then you are continually introducing new cases into the milking herd.  Unfortunately, if an animal has digital dermatitis early in her life, it will most likely continue to affect her as she enters the milking herd.  Renowned cattle lameness researcher Dr Arturo Gomez has published research showing that if heifers have no digital dermatitis pre-calving about 80% of those stay infection-free into the next lactation.  On the other hand if animals have one case of digital dermatitis pre-calving, about 50% become repeat offenders. Gomez went on to show that if heifers have multiple cases of digital dermatitis pre-calving, then about 70% of them repeatedly get cases during the first lactation.  Additionally they will produce a lower milk yield in the first lactation and be at increased risk of early culling from the herd.

A study in the UK by Dr Laura Randall and others (2017) highlighted that animals with previous lameness issues were more likely to be affected.  They showed that approx. 80% of lameness cases could be contributable to a reoccurring issue and concluded that repeated bouts of lameness made a large contribution to the total number of lameness events in the studied herds. Randall and co-workers surmised this could be because certain cows are initially susceptible and remain susceptible due to the increased risk associated with previous lameness events or due to repeated interactions with environmental factors.

Prioritise Feet Hygiene

To prevent digital dermatitis from occurring in the first place, the focus should be on hoof hygiene.  The whole herd goal of preventing digital dermatitis is to create clean, dry feet.  This means it is important to look for manure pooling in walkways where animals are constantly standing and to use a proper footbath system.  When utilising footbaths, it is important to aim for an appropriate contact time with a well-constructed and well-positioned footbath, with a proven footbath product for the solution in it. 

Foot baths are prevention, which is better than cure

Once an animal is infected with digital dermatitis, she will carry the disease with her for the rest of her life. One way to manage this is through proper footbath use and identifying active lesions for timely treatment. The goal is not to focus solely on treatment but to prevent NEW INFECTIONS by disinfecting feet, ideally every day if not every milking. Cows with active lesions can be identified and promptly treated to reduce the pain and send the lesion in a healing state that does not infect other healthy feet.  Foot bathing also appears to help keep infected cows free from infection if done properly at the right concentration of product. 

Using the footbath will require some tinkering and adjustment at various times throughout the winter period, and indeed the whole year.  It is almost like treating the footbath like a dial, where at certain times you will need to increase or decrease the footbath solution concentration and frequency of use to match the level of digital dermatitis in the herd.  Therefore monitoring and management of digital dermatitis on a continual (weekly) basis will make it cost effective.

Footbath management

Some tips for best management practices for footbaths so it lends itself to being less of a chore and more a routine job:

  1. Use a well-designed footbath with adjacent mixing facilities.  Long enough for 2-3 feet immersions so ideally around 3 metres long and 0.6 metres wide
  2. Provide a footbath at least every other day and adjust based on outcome to achieve a minimum frequency to maintain control
  3. Use an antibacterial with evidence of efficacy against digital dermatitis and other infectious lesions
  4. Use the solution as long as it is effective e.g. 150 to 500 cow passes for a standard 250 litre bath
  5. Footbath all cow and heifer groups

Alternatives to copper and formalin

Without doubt copper and formalin are the two most traditionally used footbath agents but each have drawbacks associated with them in terms of safety and legalisation.

Formalin chemically cauterises digital dermatitis wounds to help healing but general industry opinion is that it is not beneficial for acute active stage lesions.  Importantly, it is classified as a probable (class 1b) carcinogen and should be handled in accordance with national legislation. Under UK law this means persons should be trained and wear the appropriate personal protective equipment.

Copper sulphate under EU biocide law is not permitted to be used in footbath solutions for animal use as it is an environmental hazard.  Also copper can be quickly inactivated by footbath contaminants like manure and urine, meaning it has a low cow pass capacity for 150 or less unless you use an acidifying agent.

Hoofsure Endurance range

Dr Nick Bell states that Hoofsure Endurance is “the only product I’ve ever trialled that has performed as well as formalin at prevent new lesions, and I’ve trialled a lot of products”.  Hoofsure Endurance is well placed to help dairy farms get on top of and control lameness.  It is a proprietary footbath solution with over 40 trials across 3 continents.  Notable research shows it is up to 44% more effective than formalin and copper sulfate with proven antibacterial activity*.  Also Hoofsure Endurance will allow up to 500 cow passes through a 200 Litre footbath making it a very cost-effective solution!  Hoofsure range also includes Konquest hoof gel and Combat hoof spray for individual hoof application.

Co-written by Dr Nick J. Bell MA VetMB PhD PG cert Vet. Ed. FHEA DipECAW BM(AWSEL) MRCVS and George Shaw, MPharm MPSNI.

*References available on request

Probiotics in Lambs Can Increase Immunity and Reduce Watery Mouth

Written Dr TB Barragry PhD, MSc, MVB, MRCVS, Dip ECVPT

Mortality in Young Lambs

Almost 50% of total lamb losses occur in the first 48 hours of life, with a further 11% coming to an early demise 2-14 days post-lambing.  Reports show that estimates of pre-weaning mortality range from 10-28 % and that most of the mortality is in the first 3 days of life across all breeds and production systems.  Deaths at or around birth can lead to the loss of up to 15% of lambs born in lowland flocks and up to 25% of lambs born in hill flocks.  Newborn lambs require 10% of their body weight in colostrum within the first 24 hours of life, after which the gut is no longer able to absorb the antibodies that help prevent disease.  45% of early lamb mortality is caused by E. coli scours (Diarrhoea/Watery Mouth ), 20% by starvation/hypothermia and 8% by pneumonia.  Several sources of UK lamb mortality data over the past 30 years find average mortality rates of 12-23%. There is significant variation in levels of losses between farms, for instance 15% lamb mortality has been reported in Welsh flocks and a UK wide study found a range of 4-21% in lowland flocks.

As mentioned previously, almost half of this mortality is caused by E. coli (Watery Mouth).  Hence an effective new approach to promote newborn gut health, better immunity, and prevention of E. coli infection in lambs might significantly reduce these high mortality figures.  One such scientific evidenced based approach is to use proven probiotics in newborn lambs to protect the gut against E. coli to boost immunity until weaning, and to generate better growth rates.

The Gut Microbiome of the Lamb Governs Health & Immunity

The optimised gut microbiome is now known to be the director, not only of gut health and protection against E. coli infection, but also of general immunity in the body.  Medical research shows the beneficial effects of quality probiotics on good bacteria (commensals) of the gut and an additive signalling effect from the gut commensals to the immune system via short chain fatty acids (SCFA) and other signalling molecules.  In essence there is a healthy “cross talk” existing between the gut and other parts of the body because of an optimised gut microbiome facilitating local immunity in the gut by counteracting E. coli, but also protecting the respiratory system, the brain and other body compartments.  Eubiosis in the gut (i.e. healthy gut flora) is associated with high levels of good bacteria and SCFA, whereas dysbiosis in the gut (pathogenic organisms) is associated with a decrease in SCFA.  This recent scientific evidence clearly underpins why in the Provita Protect field trials, the treated animals displayed not only a significantly lower incidence of E. coli scour but also a lower incidence of respiratory disease.

Interestingly, there are more cells in the body’s microbiome than there are animal cells in the body. Plus there is more DNA within cells of the gut microbiome directing immunity than there is in the entire animal cell count of the body.  An optimised gut microbiome in lambs will have a higher portion of commensal organisms if acted upon directly by a proven and quality probiotic.  This probiotic-enhanced gut microbiome, as discussed, is proven to boost overall health of newborns.  This new concept explains not only the healthier gut and lower incidence of scours seen with a licensed probiotic such as Provita Protect, but also explains the significantly better growth rates seen as a bonus when calves receive Provita Protect.  Similar growth rate improvements have been reported with probiotics in lambs, together with a reduction of E. coli scour and better immunity.  The gut of the foetal lamb is sterile in the womb and is only very slowly colonised after birth.  Thus, the newborn lamb has little or no gut based immunity and is highly susceptible to E. coli infection (Watery Mouth). 

A severe challenge by environmental pathogens such as E. coli can easily override this weak and minimal indigenous commensal population in the newborn lamb.  A number of Provita newborn products contain high numbers of beneficial bacteria which help to seed, augment, and consolidate this indigenous commensal population, thereby counteracting pathogenic infection, while at the same time boosting overall health.  Specifically, these beneficial bacteria added to the gut counteract and “overcrowd” unwanted bacteria, plus also enhance early gut development to boost early gains.

Why the Lamb Benefits from Lamb Response

Lambs rely on maternal colostrum for passive immune protection because they are born immunodeficient.  Furthermore, the role between commensal microorganisms and host interaction supports the hypothesis that gut commensals play a key role in immune training.  Even with support from maternal immunoglobulins, lambs still exhibit high mortality rates, and hence implementing early and effective supplementation of the gut commensal population with Lamb Response is of critical importance.  An enhanced commensal gut microbiome will boost lamb survival and reduce digestive disturbances in the gut, thereby reducing diarrhoea incidence by virtue of the anti-pathogenic, gut based action of probiotics.  See figure 1:

Provita products are designed to supply approved additives in optimum levels and in the correct ratio, to help ensure maximum productivity from livestock. 

Provita Lamb Response is a beneficial bacteria based oral supplement which acts preventatively to augment the gut commensal population of the newborn lamb with protective bacteria, thereby generating gut health, and preventing establishment of E. coli by boosting immunity.  This product also supplies protective egg proteins and B vitamins to further enhance the gut, and to stimulate metabolism and growth.  Young lambs can also be very susceptible to hypothermia, loss of energy, and deficiency of vitamin E and selenium. Supplying egg proteins, energy (glucose) and trace elements such as vitamin E & selenium immediately after birth will not only kick start the metabolism of the newborn lamb but will also aid its survivability.  For example by using a complementary product such as Provita Jump Start.  This will act in synergy with the beneficial bacteria in Lamb Response.  Provita Jump Start is high in energy, minerals, and vitamins to provide instant and slow release and to counteract common deficiencies.  Jump Start is a nutritional supplement, specifically developed to provide newborn lambs with beneficial sources of immediately available and slow release energy containing 14 different types of minerals and vitamins. 

Written Dr TB Barragry PhD, MSc, MVB, MRCVS, Dip ECVPT

(Dr T. Barragry acts as consultant to Provita Animal Health Ltd )