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Reducing antibiotics at lambing

Our Molecare Farm Vet Stephanie Patel has been looking at how you could reduce the use of antibiotics as the lambing season gets underway.

The pros and cons of antibiotic use during the busy lambing season can easily be forgotten when it’s all kicking off. As many of you know, Spectam™ has been discontinued and for those who depend on it, you may be left with that feeling of what else can I use?

And for those who do not use it, or have not heard of it before, well done! Spectam™ was an oral antibiotic used for the control and treatment of watery mouth – an E. coli infection in lambs. It was used as a blanket treatment, becoming unpopular in the battle to reduce overall antibiotic use.

New Born Lambs

Lambing can be associated with a higher use of antibiotics for watery mouth, mastitis in ewes and the increased incidence of lameness. By understanding where our greatest use of antibiotics is, we can work out how to reduce our use by understanding how and why the diseases are occurring in the first place.

There are several different factors at play that predispose lambs to watery mouth. Insufficient quantity of colostrum at birth – and within the first six hours – and hygiene in the lambing pen, which are the highest risk of intake of bacteria.

These factors are all within our control. To ensure good quality colostrum, the ewes need to be at target body condition, meaning they need to maintain a score of 3 to 3.5 for lowland ewes, six weeks before lambing.

Udder development takes place in the last month of pregnancy. Passive transfer of antibodies occurs in the first six hours after birth and they require 50ml/kg of colostrum in this time. 24hours after birth the antibodies have virtually disappeared. As the lamb is seeking out the udder it will likely suckle the ewes fleece which is how it ingests E. coli. It is vital the lamb receives sufficient colostrum in a clean environment in this period.

Toxins from E. coli are only released when the bacteria die and it has been suggested probiotics or activated charcoal may aid in reducing the number of bacteria.

Mastitis will often occur in the first month of lactation and different factors can predispose ewes, like the contamination of the udder from faeces due to poor hygiene in the shed, damage from orf – a viral skin disease – or over suckling due to poor milk supply. This again is linked to ewe nutrition and ensuring she is lambing at the correct body condition.

Lameness is often reported as a problem, especially those lambing inside. Foot rot can spread rapidly, with the warm bedding and areas where the sheep congregate areas of concern.

Incorporating Footvax into your health plan can help reduce cases. Consider setting up a footbath close to the ewes to enable regular foot bathing if they are going to be housed, as this will help to reduce and treat the bacterial load on the hooves.

Here are some top tips to help reduce infections and antibiotics use during lambing time

  • Dagging, or cutting away dirty, wet wool from around the tail and in front of hind legs will help reduce lambs suckling dirty wool when trying to find the teat
  • Lambs need to receive 50ml/kg of colostrum in the first four to six hours
  • Monitor body condition of ewes to ensure they do not drop below a score of 3 before lambing, this will help boost colostrum quality and quantity so over suckling doesn’t occur
  • Ensure individual pens are cleaned out between ewes and disinfected, with clean straw laid down to reduce bacterial load and reduce E. coli infections and mastitis
  • Consider the use of Footvax vaccine if lameness is a problem at lambing
  • If possible, foot bathe the ewes regularly whilst they are being housed to reduce the overall bacterial burden on their hooves and help reduce the spread of foot rot
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