Providing practical information to help you protect your farm from biosecurity risks

Communication the key to tackling sheep disease

December 3, 2013

2013 Biosecurity Farmer of the Year finalist, Chris Cocker says effective biosecurity practices can easily be incorporated in day to day farming activities, with early detection and management the key to preventing problems from taking hold.

Wet seasonal conditions in northern Tasmania are creating the perfect environment for a footrot outbreak, but producers are staying one step ahead through a carcase feedback system at their local abattoir that focuses on animal health attributes.

Tasmania Quality Meats (TQM) in Cressy, Tasmania has been working with farmers in the area to improve on-farm biosecurity by providing feedback direct to producers on any detection of animal health issues as well as confirming the absence of certain conditions.

Regular training sessions on disease prevention and eradication help farmers to improve the animal health status of their flocks. Over the last three years more than 300 producers and farm workers from 120 properties have participated in training workshops, which TQM quality assurance manager Chris Cocker says has paid dividends for both producers and the abattoir.

“Anything that we find that is out of the ordinary we actually ring the farmers the same day as we process their animals,” Mr Cocker said.

“We then use our training room to educate people about what’s happening with their stock and what problems they may have, because if there’s things like liverfluke or footrot, the farmer’s losing money and the abattoir is losing money.

 “I’m often the bearer of bad news but the farmers love having that feedback because it allows them to make a business decision on how to manage the situation.”

 It is a message backed by the Sheepmeat Council of Australia and WoolProducers Australia, which have been promoting the importance of good on-farm biosecurity in protecting a farm business from the loss of income associated with unwanted diseases, pests and weeds.

 According to Mr Cocker, effective biosecurity management practices can easily be incorporated in day to day farming activities, with early detection and management the key to preventing problems from taking hold.

 The training provided by TQM brings together a team of experienced animal health advisors and veterinarians to provide advice on best practice for preventing and eradicating a range of diseases, including Ovine Johne’s disease (OJD), with tips such as how, where and when vaccinations should be applied. The major threat to TQM’s suppliers this season is footrot, due to the wet conditions of the past two years.

 “Sheep with footrot are usually one-and-a-half fat scores lighter – that’s probably 6-7kg lighter on a 20kg sheep, which can cost a producer up to $30 a head in lost income,” he said.

 Campbelltown graziers Lindsay and Rae Young are already counting the cost – financial, physical and emotional – as they work through an arduous control and eradication program.

 Footrot was discovered in their 6000-head Merino flock earlier this year after stray sheep entered their land. With the entire flock now classed as ‘infected’, the Youngs are footbathing all 6000 head once every two weeks, taking 15 days a month out of their farm management program; and this is just to control the disease.

 “In summer when it’s drier, all sheep will have their feet checked four times over a four-month period, and have an injection of antibiotics to resolve any residual infection,” Mrs Young said.

“It’s a huge cost emotionally and physically. But the biggest problem for us is that we think we got it from a neighbour, but we don’t know which neighbour and we don’t really know how. So we can go to all this trouble – and it’s extremely onerous – and we could get it again.”

 Footrot is commonly spread by carrier sheep during dry times when symptoms aren’t apparent, with the onset of warm and wet conditions allowing the disease to then establish in other sheep.

 Mrs Young said communication with her neighbours and limiting the opportunity for stock to stray would be the keys to success.  Local vet Paul Nilon agreed good communication was vital to the success of biosecurity efforts, with prevention for most diseases far preferable to control and eradication.

 “In the case of footrot the last thing you want to happen is for someone to just lift a stray sheep back over the fence,” Mr Nilon said. “So the first thing we say to people when they enter a footrot control and eradication program is to tell your neighbours what you’re doing because without their cooperation then it will all come to tears.

 “We also encourage our clients to use the Sheep Health Statement (SHS) as diligently as they can – it’s the starting point for discovering what you’re buying in and what potential problems there might be.”

 It’s advice endorsed by the Youngs. “While we have a self-replacing flock, we do buy rams in and we insist on an SHS so that we know the risk level and disease status associated with that purchase,” Mrs Young said.

 “And any sheep that come onto the farm go straight to a foot bath and then to a shed for about five days – their feet don’t touch the ground and are kept dry, and we also give them an antibiotic treatment.”

 The Youngs enacted the strict quarantine procedures for stock entering their property several years ago, following on from the training provided by TQM after the detection of sheep measles in a handful of their stock and a separate detection of OJD in one animal.

“With OJD, TQM alerted us to the fact that we had a potential problem and as a result we vaccinate all our sheep and we’ve never seen it again,” Mrs Young said. “Over time that feedback and advice has saved us a lot of money and stress.” 

Visit the Farm Biosecurity Sheep page and scroll down to watch the Tackling Sheep Disease in Tasmania video.

Commissioned by the Sheepmeat Council of Australia and Wool Producers Australia.