Lameness-related problems and endemic infectious diseases continue to be key issues eroding the efficiency of production on cattle and sheep farms according to a new report.

Results from Ruminant Health and Welfare's nationwide grassroots survey, reveal that such issues are also compromising the wellbeing of both the cattle and sheep industries, indicating where a step-change in progress is needed to tackle these conditions.

In the sheep sector, parasitic diseases and lameness are the most common conditions affecting flock health and welfare according to RH and W chairman, Nigel Miller.

“Perhaps it is not surprising that foot rot scores so highly; nobody can doubt the corrosive impact on body condition and welfare. There is also the indirect ripple effect which threatens the performance and, at times, the survival of lambs from affected ewes.”

Contagious Ovine Digital Dermatitis (CODD) also scores highly: “This emphasises the severity of the condition and it may indicate its increasing reach into the national flock,” says Mr Miller.

Interestingly, while the top syndrome highlighted was neonatal lamb disease/mortality, none of the neonatal diseases were listed in the top six diseases.

It is also believed that CODD is under-diagnosed and the iceberg diseases are unrecognised. The responses may also reflect health problems that farmers see (footrot and lameness, scab and PGE) rather than diseases that are difficult to see yet cause sub-clinical problems like MV, Johne’s disease, OPA and CLA – as well as Border disease, which was not included.

Some however, did flag CLA, OPA and MV, which appear to be more significant in the lowlands, with these farmers mainly recipients of upland cross-bred sheep.

Looking at cattle enterprises, the survey scores confirm both digital dermatitis and Johne’s disease as major threats across sectors.

“Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR) and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) also rank highly, even though extreme IBR outbreaks appear to be less common and the threat of BVD has subsided due to eradication progress across the four nations.

“The priority status of viral pneumonia is interesting and pinpoints a recurring threat on many holdings. At a time when vaccination programmes are at the centre of the health management debate this may increase interest in that proactive approach.”

The fact that key infectious diseases BVD and Johne’s disease rank highly, reflects their importance and

recognition by farmers and vets. This justifies the control programmes available and should add impetus

to a national control and eradication programme for England to complement what is happening in other

devolved nations.

The relative importance of liver fluke infection for the beef suckler sector should drive further research

and knowledge exchange to balance the best control strategies with the impact on productivity, avoiding

flukicide resistance and the impact of anthelmintics on the environment.

The survey, which saw 600 responses from farmers, vets and consultants who work hands-on with sheep and cattle, will now be used to speed progress and overcome barriers of such issues.

Dr Amey Brassington of AHDB, who analysed the results, says the disparity between vet or consultant and farmer views was one of the most interesting findings.

“These differences of opinion may be a result of vets having a broader range of experience than farmers. Equally, vets are only called out to issues that cannot be dealt with by the farmer, which could influence what is seen as the biggest issue. Fly strike is a typical example where farmers lead its treatment.”

Colin Mason, board member of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, says it is reassuring that the survey has confirmed digital dermatitis and lameness among the top issues in cattle – but concerning that they remain so damaging.

“Equally, fertility, mastitis and youngstock diseases continue to be headlines that must be addressed. However, there is good coherency in the survey between specific diseases and syndromes, for example digital dermatitis to lameness, and viral pneumonia to calf disease, and that only adds to the weight of the findings.”

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, says the responses may reflect health problems that farmers see rather than diseases that are difficult to see yet cause sub-clinical problems. “Overall, we do have solutions to many of the common diseases that are causing problems, but the challenge is that putting them in place on-farm creates challenges.”

RH&W says the next steps are crucial – to signpost well-established initiatives and identify areas where further co-ordinated effort could make a significant difference. The first disease workshop is due to be held on June 29, bringing together vets, farmers and researchers who have special interests in these diseases, and will attempt to identify barriers, goals and interventions.