Eliminating the effects of footrot on sheep flocks in the Northeast
Sheep can be an important enterprise on farms in the Northeast as the region is the home of millions of lamb consumers. However, significant barriers exist to the profitability of sheep including key animal health issues. Footrot has been identified as a main reason sheep farmers are forced out of business. Footrot is a highly contagious disease that requires relentless treatment using persistent hoof trimming, foot bathing, customized vaccines and other management practices. These inputs require considerable time and money.
An experienced research team comprised of a veterinarian, a biologist, a geneticist and agriculture educators lead this project. They are addressing the disease by educating producers about the causes, treatment, management and preventative techniques including the use of genetic selection to generate footrot-free flocks. A biosecurity plan is an important tool in preventing the disease. Participating farms will implement a customized biosecurity plan.
Producers will be selected to participate in this footrot management program. They will be trained in biosecurity as well as in the techniques for assessment, scoring and record keeping of foot health as a basis for selection of breeding stock. The team will evaluate and score the feet of at least 200 sheep from participating farms and collect blood samples. DNA from these samples will be evaluated for predictive markers of footrot resistance. Resistance in these sheep will be tested by documenting absence of footrot lesions in the presence of footrot organisms. The unique integrated approach of foot management, selection for resistance, and documentation of genetic markers will allow breeders to eliminate footrot. Selection for resistance will reduce costs and make producers less dependent on chemicals and other inputs. Our performance target is that 150 participating producers will reduce losses in their sheep operation caused by footrot by at least 70% and have a defined plan to develop a footrot-free flock.
150 participating producers will reduce losses in their sheep operation caused by footrot by at least 70% and have a defined plan to develop a footrot-free flock. It is estimated that producers spend from $1,600.00 to $2,000.00 annually addressing foot health in their respective flocks. A 70% reduction in losses for 150 producers is calculated to be $270,000.00 ($1,800.00 X 150 producers). A 70% reduction in looses related to footrot for just half of the shepherds in milestone #1 is calculated to be $1,350,000.00 ($1,800.00 X 750 producers).
No milestone for this project has yet to be fully achieved. However, a few milestones are nearing achievement namely the number of participating farms in the project (eleven out of twenty) and the establishment of an advisory team. All eleven participants as well as their partners/spouses from five states have actively participated and provided feedback and advice to the research team via phone conversations, email communications and annual electronic surveys.
Attempts to reach sheep farms in all twelve of the northeast states occurred in 2011 via email blitzes through state sheep association contacts, Extension sheep specialists and blogs. Our Internet records show that two hundred and forty-two (242) people were interested enough to view the section of the project website for applying to participate in 2011. Several farms around the northeast submitted applications to participate in this applied research project for 2011. Eight farms were selected to participate via the written application and phone interviews. These sheep farms were situated in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Maryland and comprised a total of approximately 500 sheep representing at least 10 different sheep breeds. In 2011, members of the research team made two visits to each of the eight farms (approximately 28 days apart) to evaluate, trim, treat and score each sheep’s feet. A tip table was transported to most farms and utilized for efficiency and safety to handlers. Blood samples were drawn from all sheep from each farm at one of the visits. Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner lead the efforts in blood drawing and sample handling. The visits were scheduled at points during the grazing season (from May to October) when environmental conditions of temperature and moisture were more apt to be conducive for foot problems to be exhibited. Each producer actively participated in all aspects of the work when the team was on their farm. In addition, the producers implemented the weekly protocol activities three times on their own when the team was not present. They, as well as their employees or family members, learned more about foot scald and footrot. Participants understood the protocol and learned how to properly trim hooves, evaluate and score hooves, mix and provide foot bath treatment and make culling decisions related to foot health. The participating producers were surveyed at the end of the year to determine the effectiveness of the work and actions. Results on the farm and within the flock to eliminate footrot were very positive as presented in the year-end survey.
On November 29, 2011, the research team members comprised of Dr. Charles Parker, Dr. Thomas Settlemire, Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, Susan Schoenian and Dr. Richard Brzozowski met via webinar and phone to overview the project to date, discuss adjustments to improve the project and to make decisions regarding next steps. During part of the webinar, we were joined by Dr. Stephen White a research geneticist in the Animal Disease Research Unit of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology at Washington State University. Dr. White’s research group uses both molecular and quantitative approaches to identify genetic factors involved in the host genetics of infectious disease and is participating with us by receiving and handling DNA samples from this SARE project. Dr. White informed the team about another sheep foot health research project newly underway in the western US and encouraged our team to collaborate with Dr. Noelle Cockette at Utah State University. This collaboration will be integral in assembling genetic data from a large number of sheep from the same breed. The research team is hopeful and excited about this collaboration and the possible identification of genetic markers for resistance to footrot in sheep.
In addition to the research-related work, team member and Small Ruminant Specialist, Susan Schoenian of Maryland Extension became more involved in the project. This year, she produced a power point presentation and an online quiz on the topic of foot health for sheep and goat producers. Susan also played a key role in developing a biosecurity template for producers to create a biosecurity plan for their own farms. Every team member fully contributed their expertise, knowledge and skills in implementing the project.
1,500 producers in the northeast will learn about the applied science of foot health of sheep and its influence on the profitability of their enterprise. They will gain skills and knowledge in current methods used to effectively treat and prevent infectious foot diseases as well as to identify genetically tolerant individuals. This will be accomplished in the first year by some producers but may also be accomplished by others in years two and three. Our Internet records show that the homepage for this project http://umaine.edu/sheep/ was viewed by 1,014 individuals in 2011. Four hundred and seventeen (417) individuals viewed the footrot section of the web page. One hundred and twenty one (121) individuals viewed the article comparing footrot and foot scald on the web page. Seventy-two (72) individuals completed the foot health survey.
Items such as a streaming video on proper foot trimming and an online quiz on foot health have been added to the project web site. This year, 2,892 people viewed the foot trimming video. As part of a future effort in educating producers, a two-part webinar on foot health has been designed for sheep or goat producers and is scheduled to be broadcast in February 2012 (21 and 28). In addition, more emphasis on educational outreach to producers is planned for 2012 with a set of articles and informational fact sheets.
At least 500 sheep producers in the region will develop and implement a customized, written biosecurity plan for their operation. This goal will be accomplished in the first, second and third years as producers recognize the value of a written biosecurity plan. This milestone is not yet fully accomplished. However, our records show that one hundred and seventy five (175) people viewed the section of the project web site on biosecurity. A template for sheep and goat producers to create their own customized biosecurity plan is almost ready for public use. Susan Schoenian of Maryland and Richard Brzozowski of Maine worked with programmer John Dorner of North Carolina in developing such an online biosecurity template. We plan to announce the availability of this free tool in early 2012 in blogs and newsletters designed to reach sheep and goat producers.
In year one, 20 sheep producers will be selected by application. These farms will be visited by research team members to train the producers with the knowledge and skills to evaluate, score and record foot health. From these participating flocks, a total of at least 300 sheep will be tissue sampled to test the efficacy of genetic markers for resistance to footrot infection. To date eleven producers (3 in 2010 and 8 in 2011) from five northeast states continue to participate in this project. The number of sheep handled, scored and from which data was collected and blood sampled is approximately 750.
In year one, an advisory team for this research project will be established that will include at least 5 sheep producers from participating farms as well as the research team members. The project has not yet officially established an advisory team for the project. However, members of the research team has conversed openly with and sought feedback from all participating farmers in the project. Our hope is to hold a conference call meeting of participating producers in Spring 2012 to identify additional needs and to measure the success of the project to date. As a side note, the members of the research team (5 individuals) have met by phone on several occasions throughout 2011 to discuss current situations related to the project.
At least 150 shepherds in selected states will develop and maintain a detailed foot rot control program for their operation. This management program would include the use of preventative techniques as well as to identify individual sheep that genetically are tolerant to foot rot. The overall goal would be for each producer to develop a foot rot resistant flock with value-added seed stock for sale. This goal will be accomplished by the third year. The research team believes the foundation for this milestone has been laid over the first two years of the project. This is evident by the level of interest in this project to date by sheep producers (visits to the project web site and individual inquiries).
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In November 2011, all project participants were asked to complete an electronic survey. Nine of the eleven producers responded. One hundred percent of the respondents were now very confident in identifying footrot symptoms in their flock. Nearly 89% felt their confidence in identifying footrot increased as a result of their participation in this project. Over 87% of the respondents have implemented a biosecurity plan for their farm.
Following are comments of participants when asked to describe changes to their flock and management as a result of their participation in this applied research project.
We now have a closed flock. We have increased biosecurity for the farm. We’re using foot baths more regularly. We soak all limping animals when they first present lameness. We have had success in curing lameness with this method. Our former method of manually treating lame animals was not as effective. Biosecurity will be more important…bi-yearly baths/trims as usual. Run my young lambs thru the bath periodically in early summer. Too young to trim, but some have trouble in wetter pasture areas. We have significantly decreased the frequency of hoof trimming as we now trim for hoof length only. Before we would trim all when we started having limping sheep. Monthly FAMACHA check and hoof trimming. We are more aware of disease control. We are using zinc sulfate footbaths on a regular basis -Trimming feet more frequently -FAMACHA scoring sheep (Learning how to FAMACHA score sheep was a great added benefit to participating in this study). Over 77% of the respondents responded positively when asked if they have saved (or will save) money by following the footrot prevention and control protocol.
Below are additional comments from producers regarding their participation.
This is a very organized and well run project. Especially a great learning experience for our staff, the teaching team was excellent. They gained confidence and have applied the knowledge to our operation
I feel very lucky to have participated in this study. As a new sheep farmer this study was a great learning experience and our sheep are healthier and happier as a result. Thank you.
It was an incredibly important opportunity to get such good contact with research scientists, educators and career sheep handlers. We don’t have enough of this. I am an audio processor and interactive learner and there are not enough opportunities to interface in a real way (not classroom or lecture) that stimulates long term memory.
Our participation in the project was well worth it. Apart from the necessity to keep trimming foot-rot sheep, the hooves from sheep that do not have foot rot also are easier to trim. Sheep without foot-rot don’t have deformed hooves.
We probably would have ended our sheep operation if we were unable to eradicate the footrot. The investigators, protocol and attention to detail were invaluable to our success.
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