Critical assessment of health plans has improved returns
Close attention to detail in terms of flock health has paid dividends for sheep farmer John Higgins. Katie Lomas went to meet him.
John Higgins is the first to admit that his farm enterprise is ‘intensive' but this has not stopped him making leaps and bounds in flock health terms with the help of some careful planning.
Mr Higgins, along with his son Edward, farms at Frodesley Park Farm, Longnor, Shrewsbury, and participated in the West Midlands Flock Health Planning project (see panel).
“We didn't think it offered anything we could benefit from at first – that was until we were asked if we had any particular issues of concern,” Mr Higgins says.
The Higgins' farm around 1,400 Suffolk Mules on 216 acres and, after some discussion, decided they wanted to focus their health planning on reducing lamb losses, reducing lameness and adopting the SCOPS principles and reduce worming.
Mr Higgins says they have been recording animal deaths for some years but had not been making proper use of the information and it was not until they began asking themselves ‘why did this lamb die?' that they made effective use of their collected data.
In 2006, 82 lambs died post-turnout and half of these losses were from unknown causes.
At this time only the later born lambs were being vaccinated for clostridial diseases and pasteurella and after some discussion it was decided that in spring 2007 all the lambs would be vaccinated twice, four weeks apart. In 2007 the Higgins' saw the death rate of lambs at field halve.
Mr Higgins says at first it was difficult to see where the cost benefit of this extra vaccination lay, as it was costing an extra £649 in labour and vaccine. However if a lamb is priced at around £50 per head and the disposal cost of the carcase is around £7.50 per lamb, they are actually making a theoretical saving of just over £1,400.
Cleanliness and colostrum quality at lambing time are also of utmost importance to ensure good lamb health according to Mr Higgins.
Lambing at Frodesley Park Farm begins in early February with the three-year-old ewes and continues in batches through to the end of April, finishing with the ewe lambs.
The ewes are brought in from stubble turnips grown nearby two to three weeks before lambing and grouped according to scan results, where they are given ad-lib hay and floor-fed a compound.
Student vets are employed to help out at lambing time and all those involved in lambing are careful to make sure the lambing sheds are kept as clean as possible.
“We clean out the sheds completely in between batches and after each ewe leaves a pen, we empty it and sprinkle it with lime,” says Mr Higgins.
“This keeps the bacteria down and we have found we have had very few problems since doing this.”
Another of Mr Higgins' ‘musts' is to ensure every lamb has suckled within two hours of lambing.
During the 2006 lambing season the Higgins' were seeing some problems with watery mouth and discovered colostrum quality was affecting this. The farm vet used a hydrometer to test the density of colostrum from a variety of ewes and it proved to be inadequate.
“The colostrum wasn't up to spec and this all came down to the quality of the compound we were buying. Luckily we were just at the end of a load and we decided to go for a higher protein compound. This put the problem right within days.”
Extra cost justifiedMr Higgins says that although the higher quality compound was costs more, it is seen to be justified on the basis of lamb losses, and also the gains from better milk production and improved immunity of lambs further on in life.
He says that when faced with these sorts of problems it is easy to blame yourself but farmers need be aware the problem may well be out of their control. He urges other farmers to keep an eye on their compound and regularly test its quality.
As a result of this attention to detail at lambing time there was a reduction in lamb losses. In 2006 the figure stood at 17 per cent and in 2007 it fell to 12 per cent, with a slight increase to 13.5 per cent in 2008.
New born lambs usually spend around 24 hours in individual pens, with twins then run for another two days in pens of 10 ewes and singles going out as soon as they are strong enough. No ewe bearing triplets rears all her lambs, as one is always taken off and put with a single or artificially reared.
Once outside the lambs are creep fed and are taken through to finishing at around 12 weeks of age. The first lambs usually start going off farm early in May and the last are away by mid November. At this time all ewes are moved off the farm to stubble turnip ground and this allows Mr Higgins to keep the farm ‘clean' for the winter months.
The Higgins' have their own wagon so take some lambs – around half – to Shrewsbury market to sell through the live ring. The rest go deadweight.
Of the 1,400 ewes, around 240 ewe lambs are bought in each year and put to a Charollais ram with the rest put to the Texel.
These replacement ewe lambs and the stock rams have been bought-in privately from the same sources for a number of years.
Mr Higgins says this set-up suits them well, as it means they know exactly what they are bringing onto the farm.
“We would rather continue doing this than buy from here and there,” he says. “The flocks we buy from have become like an extension of our own farm now and if we have a problem they are more likely to put it right. We want to keep this relationship going.”
The set-up at Frodesley Park Farm also means ewe lambs come onto the farm in batches and are kept in the same batches until they leave the farm, which minimises the threat of disease spread.
Additionally, replacement rams are only housed together when tupping has finished at the beginning of December.
Mr Higgins says he felt they were ‘starting to get on top of' lameness problems, in particular foot rot, and this has mainly been down to an ongoing policy of culling persistently lame ewes.
Any ewe or ram showing signs of lameness is treated as soon as possible and sprayed on the offending leg with a different colour spray each time. Mr Higgins says this made it easy to spot a persistently lame sheep and fit them with a cull tag if necessary.
The third and final area of concern is worming and although their policy has not altered radically they are now making use of the SCOPS principles and Mr Higgins says ‘everything is working fine'.
They alternate yearly between the white and yellow drenches and stay away from clear drenches to ensure they have something to ‘fall back on' if their wormers are not working properly.
Mr Higgins says wormers are only used when required and faecal egg counts were taken throughout the year and 14 days after worming to make sure they are working properly.
As well as sheep, the Higgins' also contract rear between 1,700 and 1,800 pigs each year.
The first batch of around 700 pigs come in as soon as the lambing sheds are empty at the beginning of May. These are gone for August and the next batch follow and are gone for Christmas.
This makes good use of all but one of the lambing sheds, which is kept free for shearing, and also means the farm has a good supply of muck to spread on its permanent pasture ground.
Mr Higgins aims to use as little nitrogen as possible so has incorporated a large amount of clover into leys. “The clover is doing exactly what we want it to do – it is keeping sheep cleaner and healthier,” he says.
Health is obviously a huge area of concern for the Higgins' and as a result they are a firm believer in careful flock health planning.
“It has been very useful and has made us look at things from a more critical point of view, rather than just carrying on doing things as we had always done them.
“It has also improved our returns and it doesn't take a lot of time. It's really just about writing things down and going through them and then spending time on a wet day looking at things and seeing where you can improve.
“I would say to any farmer the only way you have to avoid losses is to plan ahead rather than spend time fire fighting.”
West Midlands flock health planning project
THE West Midlands flock health planning project is part of Defra's Farm Health Planning initiative, which started in May 2007.
The initiative was set up to help farmers improve farm animal health and welfare and involves £1.6 million funding being awarded to a range of projects around
There are separate projects for sheep and cattle sectors but the objectives for both are the same – to ensure every UK livestock farmer has a written plan and the initial Defra money dedicated was spent in a way that set the initiative up long-term, allowing it to survive after the funding had gone.
The objective of the West Midlands project is ‘to promote the uptake and understanding of flock health planning and its contribution to the future sustainability of the sheep industry'. A total of 10 farmers and their vets work with Adas to be ‘focus farms' with flock performance data gathered and analysed, a flock health plan set up and three disease/husbandry targets set for each farm.
Gross margin analysis was carried out for 2006 to give a baseline for performance against which future progress could be measured.