More than 30% of GB sheep flocks don’t know their barren ewe rate or are reporting a figure greater than 5% after lambing.

This finding comes from an online survey of 966 sheep flocks conducted by MSD Animal Health during January 2024.

“We’d advise any sheep farmer experiencing a barren ewe rate greater than 2% to discuss their flock health situation with their veterinary professional – and to rule out any potential underlying disease cause,” said MSD Animal Health livestock veterinary adviser Dr Kat Baxter-Smith.

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In the survey, 27% of farmers reported a barren rate of 2-5% with only 42% meeting the accepted industry target of fewer than 2% ewes barren.

Dr Baxter-Smith also encouraged sheep farmers to work with their veterinary professional to diagnose any causes of abortion during the 2024 lambing season. According to the January 2024 survey feedback, a third of farmers do not investigate abortions.

“Encouragingly, over 45% of the survey sample said they do consult their vet if abortions occur and have them investigated immediately. And a further 21% tag any barren or aborting ewes for blood testing after lambing. This is what we would recommend.”

Ewe reproductive failure, neonatal lamb disease, and mortality are the three biggest factors limiting better flock productivity2 – with toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion continuing to be significant causes of these unwanted flock heath issues. Consequently, MSD Animal Health has now launched its subsidised 2024 FlockCheck diagnostic scheme, which allows farmers in England, Scotland, and Wales to blood test their flock for exposure to toxoplasmosis and enzootic abortion (EAE).

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Dr Baxter-Smith said that all farmers have to do is ask their veterinary professional to take blood samples from six to eight aborted, unvaccinated ewes, or from barren ewes or ones that have produced weakly lambs.

“The blood test has proved to be an extremely useful flock diagnostic tool in terms of helping to identify the potential presence of any key underlying productivity limiting disease. Experience has shown that the results certainly help vets and their farmer clients make more informed decisions about appropriate flock health measures.”

Annual FlockCheck blood test results consistently demonstrate that a significant proportion of the aborted ewes tested have been exposed to either toxoplasmosis or EAE – and sometimes both. For example, 2023 blood test results from more than 3,700 ewes showed 77% of 526 sheep farms had been exposed to toxoplasmosis and 17% to EAE3; with 13% of farms showing evidence of exposure to both pathogens. This is consistent with a recent APHA analysis showing that between 2002 and 2019, toxoplasmosis and EAE have been the most common diagnoses of sheep abortion3.

According to Dr Kat Baxter-Smith, both these infectious causes of abortion can be responsible for reducing the number of lambs per ewes mated, which can increase workload and stress during lambing. Profit may also be reduced significantly4, she stressed, but using FlockCheck can help in improving a flock’s potential and overall economic performance.

Sheep farmers interested in taking advantage of this subsidised industry support from MSD Animal Health to help reduce the risk of lower productivity, should contact their local veterinary professional as soon as possible. This year’s FlockCheck scheme opened on February 1, 2024.