Lameness and infectious disease remain among top priorities for farmers and vets across the UK

Ruminant Health & Welfare (RH&W) has announced the results to its nationwide ’grassroots’ survey of farmers, stock people and vets on priority livestock diseases and syndromes. 

The results suggest that lameness-related problems and endemic infectious disease continue to be key issues eroding the efficiency of production and compromising the wellbeing of both the cattle and sheep industry, indicating where a step-change in progress is needed to tackle these conditions.  

The sheep disease priorities underline the real threat that common conditions pose to flock health and welfare, in particular the pressures of parasitic disease and lameness. “Perhaps it is not surprising that foot rot scores so highly; nobody can doubt the corrosive impact on body condition and welfare,” says Nigel Miller, chair of RH&W. “There is also the indirect ripple effect which threatens the performance and, at times, the survival of lambs from affected ewes.”

Contagious Ovine Digital Dermatitis (CODD) also scores highly. “This emphasises the severity of the condition and it may indicate its increasing reach into the national flock,” says Mr Miller.

On the cattle side, survey scores confirm both digital dermatitis and Johne’s disease as major threats across sectors. “Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR) and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) also rank highly, even though extreme IBR outbreaks appear to be less common and the threat of BVD has subsided due to eradication progress across the four nations.

“The priority status of viral pneumonia is interesting and pinpoints a recurring threat on many holdings,” he adds. “At a time when vaccination programmes are at the centre of the health management debate this may increase interest in that proactive approach.”

The survey, which gained over 600 responses from those at the ‘grassroots’ of the industry, aimed to establish the disease, health and welfare priorities of those who work hands-on with sheep and cattle. “These results are some of the first that truly take into account those at the coalface of farming, who deal with these diseases and conditions on a daily basis,” says Mr Miller.

“We will now take these results forward to a workshop where priorities will be discussed, existing interventions established and gaps identified where RH&W could facilitate or speed progress and overcome barriers.”

Dr Amey Brassington of AHDB, who analysed the results, says the disparity between vet or consultant and farmer views was one of the most interesting findings. “These differences of opinion may be a result of vets having a broader range of experience than farmers. Equally, vets are only called out to issues that cannot be dealt with by the farmer, which could influence what is seen as the biggest issue. Fly strike is a typical example where farmers lead its treatment.”

Colin Mason, board member of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, says it is reassuring that the survey has confirmed digital dermatitis and lameness among the top issues in cattle – but concerning that they remain so damaging. 

“Equally, fertility, mastitis and youngstock disease continue to be headlines that must be addressed. However there is good coherency in the survey between specific diseases and syndromes, for example digital dermatitis to lameness, and viral pneumonia to calf disease, and that only adds to the weight of the findings.”  

Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association, says the responses may reflect health problems that farmers see rather than diseases that are difficult to see yet cause sub-clinical problems. “Overall, we do have solutions to many of the common diseases that are causing problems, but the challenge is that putting them in place on-farm creates challenges.”

RH&W says the next steps are crucial – to signpost well-established initiatives and identify areas where further co-ordinated effort could make a significant difference. The first disease workshop is due to be held on 29 June, bringing together vets, farmers and researchers who have special interests in these diseases, and will attempt to identify barriers, goals and interventions.

The full report can be downloaded below and a recording of the webinar – kindly hosted by AHDB – is also available opposite.

Questions from the webinar

What are the views of the panel on health planning in achieving change? What about the role of nutrition, supply chain incentives, education or training? The role of all these will be key aspects raised in the follow-up workshop on 29 June.

Youngstock disease and mortality affect welfare and productivity, but also impact the health and productivity of the adult. Could this be part of a follow up survey? This will be taken forward for discussion on 29 June in the follow-up workshop.

Were SQPs engaged as part of the survey? Yes they were approached although we didn’t have a huge response. SQPs and RAMAs play a very important role and are well-respected in the industry, and we are going to involve them in our follow-up workshop on 29 June.

Lameness keeps coming up as the top concern across cattle and sheep, yet the tools to address underlying condition are out there. How do we drive better uptake? One of the aims for the workshop on 29 June will be to examine where scientific, policy and communications gaps are, and determine ways to drive awareness and uptake. it could be lack of awareness of tools, or lack of awareness of the issue on your farm. Both need addressing.

We are still struggling for a solution to CODD – there is an urgent need for high quality, well-funded research into the condition. That will be discussed at the workshop on 29 June, but we are aware of some work being done. The question is, will it provide the answers needed, and how will that information be rolled out then uptake driven? 

There are some omissions, such as lameness as a syndrome in sheep, Border disease in sheep and specifically tick-borne issues (as opposed to broader vector-borne diseases); can these still be considered? Yes, they have been earmarked for discussion in the workshop on 29 June.

Is it useful to distinguish between those diseases that can and should be dealt with at farm level, and those that require wider co-ordinated effort? Yes!  This is an important point which will be picked up at the workshop on 29 June. At that session, we will be examining the priorities and discussing a) gaps in current interventions and programmes b) what outcomes should be achievable for that condition c) optimal interventions, and d) where RH&W can play a role…and that is where this type of analysis will be very useful.

We look forward to reporting back after 29 June! In the meantime, please let us know your thoughts and ideas through our contact page.