A sustained focus on the FAI Farms Five-Point Plan for reducing sheep lameness has enabled Steven Lawson to stamp out foot disease in his Northumbrian flock.

In doing so he has stopped relying on antibiotics for treating lame sheep and shaved up to 10 weeks off lamb finishing time at his 118ha mixed South Farm holding in Hallington, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Steven has farmed in partnership with his father Alan since 2002 and they now run up to 850 breeding ewes lambing outside during April, plus 50 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle.

“At its worst more than 18% of our flock were lame. It was so bad five years ago that we were struggling to find a field large enough to accommodate all the sheep struggling with foot problems,” Steven recalls.

He believes his difficult lameness management issues date back to when the family decided to expand their sheep enterprise back in 2015.

“We clearly imported contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD) amongst a large batch of ewe replacements that autumn. Only one or two gimmers were visibly lame but that was all it took to introduce the disease – and because the sheep were kept quite tightly on the available ground we had that year, the infection spread quickly.”

The unfortunate early introduction of CODD had a catastrophic knock-on effect the following year with Steven spending a soul-destroying and significant amount of time treating lame sheep. He also failed to get enough fat lambs away on target finish dates.

“As a result of the lameness problem, it took us until the following February to finish some lambs and, even then, they were way out of specification for our usual deadweight outlet. We also spent a fortune on antibiotics – we were always jabbing ewes and lambs and having to try different active ingredients,” Steven says.

But with the help of his vet Lee-Anne Oliver from Scott Mitchell Associates; a member of XL Vets – a group of independent practices who together share knowledge and experience, the Lawsons slowly started to turn things around.

“We’d seen some trial work highlighting the efficacy of a new disinfectant footbath to help with the treatment and prevention of infectious causes of lameness in sheep, so thought it worth a try to help Steven kickstart his lameness improvement programme,” says Lee-Anne.

“STERI7 had been used on a local farm to try and overcome a similar CODD problem where large numbers of sheep were infected. The farm changed all their footbaths to this particular disinfectant and sheep were run through it every time they were brought in for handling. It was also used for topical treatment for individual animals in the field. With a protocol of regular footbathing – and a strict policy to quarantine any lame sheep – this farm saw a reduction in lameness cases needing treatment.”

The Lawsons started a similar protocol while continuing to treat clinical cases promptly with antibiotics.

“We also implemented a strict ‘two strikes and you’re out’ culling policy. This has been further strengthened and now, if any replacement ewe lamb goes lame with anything other than scald, it doesn’t get a second chance and will only be reared as a finished lamb,” says Steven.

He added that their quarantine process has become more rigorous too.

“Now we keep any bought in sheep in a field separately from the rest of the flock for at least a month, just to makes sure they are sound on all counts.”

The final piece of the jigsaw was the implementation of a ewe vaccination regime against footrot.

“By the summer of 2016 the situation had improved somewhat but we were still having to treat too many lame sheep. Lee-Anne had stressed that to overcome any sheep lameness problem a sustained approach was necessary – and also the fact that we really needed to implement all five points of the plan, including vaccination against footrot to build up flock immunity. Consequently, we started annual vaccination prior to tupping in October 2016.”

Lee-Anne said that CODD is often a precursor to other infectious causes of sheep lameness and evidence suggests that vaccination against footrot can often help mitigate its impact.

“Footrot is the most common cause of infectious lameness in sheep but is also a risk factor for other foot disease issues, such as CODD. These are the two most important causes of lameness in UK sheep; they may be two different diseases yet are strongly associated in their infectivity and transmission routes. Footrot is certainly a risk factor for CODD, so if you can keep this widespread disease under control you can also help to mitigate the impact of any CODD issue in your flock,” she says.

Steven said the results have been transformational at South Farm.

“The following year we hardly had to treat a lame sheep and the lambs finished well off grass. In 2017 all our lambs were gone before the end of November and we have managed to repeat that improved performance in 2018 and 2019. What’s more, it’s rare for us now to draw any lamb that ends up being out of specification.

“Lameness incidence here is now down to less than 2% of the flock annually and we’ve also slashed our antibiotic use for managing this particular disease problem. I can hardly remember having to inject a lame ewe in recent years. Certainly, we now spend far less on footrot vaccine than we ever did on antibiotics.

“In the case of vaccination against footrot, it has definitely delivered a demonstrable financial return on our farm – as well as saving us countless hours treating lame sheep,” Steven said.

FARM facts

• 118ha land used for grazing sheep and beef cattle

• 850-900 breeding ewes (including ewe lambs): one third North Country Mules; two thirds first generation Texel crosses

• Ram breeds: Beltex, Texel, Suffolk x Texel; Texel tup lambs and teaser tups

• 50 pedigree Aberdeen Angus cattle

• AHDB Strategic Farm: keen focus on improving grass grazing quantity and quality; and boosting more kg of lamb sold per acre

The FAI Farms Five-Point Plan:

Implemented correctly and given long-term commitment, the Five-Point Plan gives sheep farmers a clear framework for managing lameness effectively because it builds natural disease resilience within the flock, reduces the disease challenge and spread on the farm, and improves flock immunity through vaccination. More widespread adoption on farm will also help the sheep sector cut its use of antibiotics for foot infections.