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 one of the main reasons sheep farmers are forced out of business. Footrot is a highly contagious disease that if present, requires relentless treatment using persistent hoof trimming, foot bathing, customized vaccines and/or 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 multi-year applied research project. In 2013, the team continued to address the disease by educating producers about the causes, treatment, management and preventative techniques including the use of genetic selection to develop footrot-free flocks. Members of the research team visited three sheep operations in the region in 2013 (two in Maine and one in Pennsylvania).
Biosecurity was identified from the start as an important aspect in preventing the disease. Participating farms have been expected to implement a customized biosecurity plan. To date, the team has evaluated and scored the feet of approximately 1,150 sheep from participating farms and collected blood samples. DNA from these samples was evaluated for predictive markers of footrot resistance.
The team continues to work with two sheep genome experts, Dr. Noelle Cockett and Dr. Stephen White, who are based in Utah and Washington state respectively. Initial genotypying has been completed on over 100 animals using the Ovine SNP50 marker set that includes over 50,000+ single nucleotide markers. Preliminary analysis is underway and the results appear promising for additional genotyping and further genetic analysis.
In 2013, work began in designing an information and picture card for foot health determination. Sheep producers will use the color and laminated card to help them identify and differentiate degrees of foot health as they evaluate individual sheep. It will help them make treatment and foot health management decisions. In addition, an on-line template for producers to develop a written biosecurity plan for their own farm continued to be promoted and made available in 2013. To date, approximately 165 small ruminant producers have used the template to write their own biosecurity plans.
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).
All milestones for this project have not yet been fully achieved. However, a few milestones are nearing achievement namely the number of participating farms in the project (eighteen out of the projected twenty) and the development of an advisory team. In an advisory capacity, all participants from seven states have actively provided feedback and advice to the research team via phone conversations, email communications and electronic surveys.
Outreach to sheep farms in all twelve of the northeast states continued in 2013 via email blitzes through state sheep association contacts, the American Sheep Industry email list, Extension sheep specialists and blogs. Our Internet records show that 10,881 people have viewed the project website. Approximately 8 farms from the northeast region submitted applications to participate in this applied research project for 2013. Three farms were selected to participate via the written application and phone interviews. The sheep farms selected for 2013 were located in Maine and Pennsylvania and comprised a total of approximately 120 sheep representing 3 different sheep breeds (Tunis, Navajo Churro and Katahdin). Members of the research team made visits to each of the three farms to evaluate, trim, treat and score each sheep’s feet. A tip table was transported to the farms and utilized for efficiency and safety to handlers. Blood samples were drawn from sheep from each farm. The visits were scheduled at points during the grazing season (from May to November) 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 on their own when the team was not present. They 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.
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 continued to participate in the project in 2013 by analyzing the DNA submitted to him. 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. Noelle Cockett of Utah State University also played an integral role in helping the team to design this year of applied research and select the appropriate breeds and number of sheep needed.
In addition to the research-related work, team member and Sheep and Goat Specialist, Susan Schoenian of the University of Maryland Extension continued to be involved with educational aspects of the project as well as electronic communications to producers in the region.
The biosecurity section of the Sheep Foot Health Research & Education website received 264 page views in 2013 and an article comparing footrot and foot scald on the web site http://umaine.edu/sheep/foot-rot/foot-rot-or-scald/ has received 913 page views.
1. 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 2,852 individuals in 2013 (a total of 10,881 since the site began in 2010).
Items such as a streaming video on proper foot trimming and an online quiz on foot health is a part of the project web site. The video “How to Prevent Sheep Foot Rot” has been viewed 24,686 times since it was posted to YouTube on Feb. 28, 2011. In addition, more emphasis on educational outreach to producers is planned for 2014 with articles and informational fact sheets.
2. 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 coming to fruition. The biosecurity section of the Sheep Foot Health Research & Education website received 701 page views in 2013. A template for sheep and goat producers to create their own customized biosecurity plan was put into use in early 2012. Susan Schoenian of Maryland and Richard Brzozowski of Maine worked with programmer John Dorner of North Carolina in developing such an online biosecurity template. The availability of this free tool was initially announced in 2012 in blogs and newsletters designed to reach sheep and goat producers across the country. Our records show that 165 prodcuers have used the template to create their own plans. The template is currently under revision in an effort to make it even more useful to producers.
3. 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 eighteen producers (3 in 2010; 8 in 2011, 4 in 2012, and 3 in 2013) from seven northeast states have participated in this project. The number of sheep handled, scored and from which data was collected and blood sampled is approximately 1,150.
4. 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 established an official 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 on a regular basis.
5. 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 end of the project. The research team believes the foundation for this milestone has been laid over the first 3 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 December 2012, participating farms were asked to complete an electronic survey. Thirteen farmers responded. Over 92 percent of the respondents were now very confident in identifying footrot symptoms in their flock. Over 92% felt their confidence in identifying footrot increased as a result of their participation in this project. Over 92% of the respondents have implemented a biosecurity plan for their farm. Most farms were footrot free. However, a few of the producers stated via the year-end survey that they still have some sheep that are showing signs of lameness. These situations were immediately followed up to address the lameness and make the necessary changes.
A participant-wide survey of farms was not administered in 2013. However, participants did provide input. Below are recent comments from three of the participating farmers:
1. “I am pleased to have participated in the sheep foot health research project. We had been struggling to control foot rot on our farm for a few years and it was threatening the continuation of our sheep livestock operation. The project enabled us to focus on the eradication of the bacteria. The dedication of the project leaders along with an effective protocol and attention to detail enabled our success. I am pleased to report that we have been foot rot free now for 2 years and we are now expanding our flock instead of disbanding it. We appreciate the project team’s guidance and assistance and thanks to SARE for sponsoring it.”
2. “The program for me was very informative and helpful. My flock did not have foot rot at the time of the study, but I have it in my flock now and have been treating them with the protocol and suggestions I learned during the study. Since doing the program, I feel confident that I can have a foot rot free flock again.”
3. “We met a bit over a year ago when we were in the process of converting from wool sheep to Katahdins. We were a bit eager to make the change and did not exercise appropriate care when buying new stock. Additionally, we did not take precautions relative to biosecurity. Working with you and Tom to implement a program to address footrot and overall farm security has paid off with high dividends. We carefully trimmed and checked all stock and moved all stock through preventative foot baths this year with very positive results. The training provided by the sheep foot health research project implemented through the University of Maine Cooperative Extension allows us to be thorough and proactive when it comes to infectious diseases on our farm. In addition, because of our participation, we have been able to provide insight on footrot problems to other shepherds.”
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