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Engaging with sheep clients

25 June 2019, at 9:00am

How can vets improve their communication to farmers and become more involved with sheep health?

Despite there being approximately 33 million sheep in the UK, the sheep sector has historically been regarded as an area of low engagement within the veterinary profession. Commercial sheep owners can be less receptive to veterinary input than other areas of production animal practice.

Reasons for this may include:

  • A relatively low generation of practice income per capita
  • A great diversity of producers – many of which are extensively farmed
  • A typical dearth of production data making it difficult to demonstrate the value of proactive veterinary management
  • Management practices on farms that have been handed down through generations by farmers who see little need for veterinary involvement
  • Heavy reliance on subsidies not related to productivity

From the farmers’ point of view, there is a general feeling that vets are not interested in sheep and/or have little expertise. Kaler and Green (2013) concluded that while some farmers did engage in regular proactive health planning, the majority saw their veterinary surgeon more in terms of disaster management, quoting barriers to engagement such as inconsistent service, high vet turn-over, lack of expertise and concerns regarding the independence of advice offered.

The challenges touched on above can make engaging with these clients a daunting prospect – particularly for practitioners who graduated with little experience in small ruminant flock management and find themselves in a practice where the senior vets are more focused on work with other species. That being said, flock health work is surprisingly engaging – particularly when dealing with clients who have had limited veterinary input in the past. On these farms, it is possible to make considerable improvements over a relatively short period of time.

Why should we push for better communication?

Until recently there has been little incentive to change on both sides – but with recent developments, the veterinary surgeon has the opportunity to play a more proactive role, which can be both beneficial for the client and challenging and rewarding for the vet. Drivers for this change include: changes in Farm Assurance by Red Tractor; the likelihood that single farm payments will be reduced or abolished in the near future; increasing concerns regarding antimicrobial resistance; climate change; and a drive towards more sustainably produced sources of protein that are efficiently produced on farms that are environmentally sustainable and welfare friendly.

How can vets get more involved?

The first point of entry onto the farm (barring emergency work) for many practitioners will now be the Annual Health and Performance Review (vet) required since June 2018 by Red Tractor Farm Assurance. This provides an ideal opportunity for the vet to acquire an overview of the system, spend time on the farm not led by clinical urgency and put into place evidence-based management changes that very often result in a decrease in the number of treatments required. This may be coupled with a well-received cost saving; many farmers continue to use anthelmintics on stock that do not require treatment – or at inappropriate times in the production cycle. Demonstrating the efficacy of advice and the possibility of saving money and safe-guarding stock welfare is of key importance and, therefore, encouraging simple, practical record keeping is important.

FIGURE (1) Prevention of parasitic gastroenteritis through the use of the SCOPS principles will increase efficiency of production, improve welfare and utilise veterinary expertise, encouraging an ongoing supportive relationship
FIGURE (1) Prevention of parasitic gastroenteritis through the use of the SCOPS principles will increase efficiency of production, improve welfare and utilise veterinary expertise, encouraging an ongoing supportive relationship

Flock health planning, seen by many farmers as a box-ticking exercise, can be an opportunity for engagement. And this can expand to open up potential for other work – for example, offering free or discounted faecal egg counts at key points in the year to help clients to understand SCOPS principles (Figure 1) and encourage sustainable anthelmintic use. Blood testing of barren ewes to assess exposure to Toxoplasma gondii and Chlamydia abortus may be available free of charge subsidised by vaccine companies and is a valuable way to demonstrate the presence of infection within a flock – and encourage vaccination if required. Critically, encouraging client-to-client interaction through meetings and discussion groups has a powerful impact on adoption of good practice on farm – and reducing abortion rates as a result of vaccination by key clients is likely to encourage other clients on board.

Proactive health planning will also promote improved welfare. Sheep are often present in large numbers on areas of extensive grazing that are accessed by the general public. Veterinary input may be vital in building a public perception of the sheep industry as a high welfare production system, for example in implementing the five-point plan to reduce the incidence of lameness (Figure 2) and providing effective parasite control planning to minimise the risk of PGE, flystrike, etc.

What are the benefits for sheep and agricultural sustainability?

Once sheep farmers are engaged, it may be suprising to find just how receptive they are to an interested and enthusiastic vet. Offering client meetings, benchmarking groups, liason between SQPs and vets, flock health clubs, subsidised post-mortem examinations and nutritional advice will all help to share knowledge. And these methods are cost effective, targeting multiple clients within a single time period and over time, allowing the sharing of experiences between clients to spread ideas and practical input regarding best practice and biosecurity.

FIGURE (2) Proactive veterinary engagement promotes improved welfare – for example the implementation of the five-point plan to address lameness
FIGURE (2) Proactive veterinary engagement promotes improved welfare – for example the implementation of the five-point plan to address lameness

Environmental management and sustainability are areas where veterinary input is increasing and are likely to be key drivers in the sheep sector of the future. This highlights the shift from “fire brigade work” towards a role as health professionals well placed to advise at whole system levels, prioritising animal health and welfare, while at the same time facilitating production effieciency, promoting the responsible use of antimicrobials and protecting the environment and livelihoods of producers.

In the current climate with the BVA promoting a “less and better” approach to meat consumption, with the support of the veterinary profession, the UK sheep industry has an opportunity to seize the chance to promote high welfare, extensive production systems, with increased efficiency as a result of proactive disease management and flock planning. As a key stakeholder in the One Health model, the sheep vet can also help to decrease the environmental footprint of animal agriculture within the industry and promote sustainable consumption. As the BVA sustainability in agriculture policy published in April 2019 states, “Vets are an integral part of the agriculture and food sector, providing preventive healthcare and treatment for livestock, carrying out disease surveillance, promoting good biodiversity and high animal welfare standards. They are well placed to advise on sustainable systems and husbandry practice and collaborate with their colleagues in the agricultural industry to work towards a more sustainable future for farming.”

One of the key findings highlighted as a reason for a lack of contact between many sheep farmers and their veterinary surgeons is a perceived lack of sheep expertise and enthusiasm from vets. There is a great deal of support for the aspiring sheep clinician in the UK. The Sheep Veterinary Society prides itself on being “The friendly society”. With biannual three-day meetings covering a wide range of topics including latest research and development, as well as a clinical discussion forum available to members, the yearly subscription is good value for money. The British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) and the London Vet Show have sheep streams, and SRUC and many of the veterinary colleges and veterinary investigation centres run small ruminant meetings.

There is an urgent need on a global level to improve production efficiency in ways that are sustainable and respect the environment, making efficient use of natural resources as well as safeguarding the welfare of animals and their keepers. The veterinary surgeon, working in partnership with the skilled shepherd, is ideally placed to play a key role in supporting this process.

References
Author Year Title
Kaler, J. and Green, L. E 2013 Sheep farmer opinions on the current and future role of veterinarians in flock health management on sheet farms: A qualitative study. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 112, 370-377

Hannah Kenway, BSc (Hons), BVSc, MRCVS, qualified from Bristol University in 1993 and has spent most of her career in farm practice. She recently completed the AHDB Developing Sheep Expertise programme and works as a large animal clinician on the Isle of Wight.

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