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Chapter 1 The sheep farm revisited

The role of the veterinarian in the Australian sheep industry | Veterinary education and the
veterinary role on sheep farms | Description of a sheep farm | Recommended reading

Return to Sheep Health & Production Index

The role of the veterinarian in the Australian sheep industry

The three roles which veterinarians in rural practice commonly have on sheep farms are:

• To make clinical diagnoses; following clinical examinations of stock with or without


post-mortem examinations, or from specimens (blood, faeces) collected from a
sample of the flock. This role embraces the making of appropriate recommendations
for treatment and/or control.
• To help make more general flock management and preventive medicine plans which
will enable the producer to avoid serious disease problems, and to enact such plans.
The plans might be designed to control (or eradicate) problems associated with:
clostridial diseases; internal parasites; ovine Johne' s disease; footrot; lice and
itchmite; improper feeding, specific nutritional deficiencies and supplementary
feeding; or poor reproductive performance.
• To carry out pre-programmed production - improving plans, such as AI and MOET.

To be effective in these three roles, veterinarians need to know how sheep farms work and
how farm decision-making occurs. This requires a sound working knowledge of the sheep
reproductive cycle, seasonality, pasture growth, farm calendars and flock structures. Farm
decisions are ultimately driven by a need to maintain a profitable and robust business. They
are made to offer the greatest 'sustainable' return to the producer, within a framework of
limitations imposed by personal objectives or external regulation. Examples of personal
objectives are the desire to have a low risk of business failure or to avoid employing any or
additional staff, and examples of limiting regulations are the prohibition of the use of certain
agricultural/veterinary chemicals or restriction on the land use of some areas of the farm.
Farm decisions are not made to maximize condition score, animal health, wool production per
head or the lamb marking percentage, but to make profits from the farm as a whole. This
important principle will be developed in Chapters 2 and 3 in discussing farm economics and
farm systems. Veterinarians must understand that a desire for business success drives farm
decision-making. If veterinary advice does not increase farm profitability and financial security
for the client, the veterinarian will probably not retain the client for long.
There are other, less common but important roles which veterinarians may have on sheep
farms. These generally fall under the heading of consultancies. Effective veterinary sheep
consultants or specialists must be able to carry out all of the above roles and give sound
advice about stocking rate, genotype selection, flock structure, pasture production, wool clip
preparation, marketing and financial management. A full training in these latter fields is
beyond the scope of this undergraduate course; various forms of postgraduate training are
necessary for graduates who choose to develop their careers in this direction. Nevertheless,
the generalist rural veterinarian does require a nodding acquaintance of these topics in order
to develop sound recommendations and plans.

Veterinary education and the veterinary role on sheep farms

The value of individual sheep in commercial flocks is generally too low for diseases with a low
incidence to attract veterinary intervention. Rams, particularly newly purchased ones or highly
valued ones, are a general exception. They often have replacement values 20 to 30 times
that of ewes or wethers, even in commercial flocks. Flocks of sheep at risk of disease,
however, may consist of 100 to 1000 or more individuals. The practice of sheep veterinary
medicine is often concerned with the diagnosis of disease in a portion of the flock, perhaps
the first few cases of a potential epidemic, and the institution of preventive plans for the rest of
the flock. The large number of animals at risk and the large productive value of the flock
justify significant expense on veterinary investigation and provides the veterinary practitioner
with ample financial scope to display his or her diagnostic skills.
One would have to say that Australian sheep flocks are still under-serviced by private
veterinary practitioners. The reasons for this are numerous. One major factor has been the
emphasis on individual animal medicine in veterinary education and in most facets of
veterinary practice work. Sheep growers have perceived this, usually correctly, and used their
veterinary practitioner for services to individual animals of value - rams and farm animals of
other species such as sheep dogs and house cows. Occasionally, animals are presented at
clinics for post-mortem but the determination of action required on the farm in the light of the
diagnosis has been very much in the hands of the client rather than the veterinarian.
Several aspects of veterinary education have led to this. First, a failure to appreciate that
diseases in sheep flocks require an epidemiological approach to their investigation and
management. Second, a difficulty in considering the economic consequences of both the
disease and the steps that are necessary to reduce the disease prevalence, and that at some
level of incidence the latter may cost more than the former. Third, a misunderstanding of the
consequences of changing one aspect of a farm system for other parts of the farm system. A
typical example is a veterinary tendency to recommend lowered stocking rates to reduce the
incidence of nutritionally related diseases. The fact that there may be other less obvious and
more complex strategies which achieve similar improvements in the disease condition without
the economic consequences of reducing sheep numbers, is seen by veterinarians as 'the
farmer's business' and beyond his or her brief as a farm advisor.
In the last twenty years, sheep veterinary education in Australia has started to address the
need to change the approach of graduating veterinarians. Unfortunately, a strong influence on
such graduates is the expectations and actions they experience in the practices which employ
them after leaving the universities. Few new graduates will have the ability and confidence to
offer novel services to clients who are not expecting such services when the more
experienced practitioners they work with do not practise the 'new' approach.
These notes aim to encourage an interest in the practice of sheep veterinary medicine which
is compatible with sound sheep management systems. The veterinarian must remain a sheep
health expert but his/her knowledge of sheep management and sheep production systems
and strategies must be developed to a moderate degree. This presents difficulties for many,
particularly those which have not been exposed to rural life significantly before graduation.
The problem however, is far from insurmountable and the rewards are large. Sheep
producers react quickly to the presence in their community of a veterinarian who, in their
words, 'knows what sheep farming is all about!'. They seek opinions on a wide range of sheep
health matters and, if the advice is considered practicable, will implement the
recommendations. This offers tremendous satisfaction to the veterinarian who will be able to
witness the confirmation of the diagnosis and judge the effectiveness of the recommendations
in the improvement of profits for the client.
First, however, the veterinarian must develop knowledge of sheep grazing systems both in
general and specifically for the district and the client' s property. A primary rule for sheep
veterinarians emerges - attend the farm. Much becomes obvious when sheep and their
environment are viewed first hand provided, of course, that the veterinarian knows what to
look at, to look for and to ask. While high levels of skill only come with experience, the
following suggestions might help develop a basic approach.

Description of a sheep farm

A sheep production system can be well described by defining the following:

1. the breed and genotype of sheep in the flock;


2. the production objective of the flock;
3. the flock size and composition;
4. the farm's management calendar;
5. the stocking rate (SR) at which sheep are run.

Breed and genotype [1]

The various types and breeds of sheep present in Australia are well described elsewhere (see
Recommended Reading). In short, Merinos dominate the national sheep flock, making up
about 90%. Merinos are considered a wool-producing breed with limited suitability as a meat
sheep, although there has been recent interest in exploiting the meat characteristics of the
strong wool South Australian Merino, particularly in light of the consistently low prices paid for
broad wool at wool sales. Approximately 7% of the national flock is Border-Leicester Merino
crossbred ewes, which are the preferred type used as prime lamb dams. Sheep of other
breeds are not numerous but some of these breeds are very important as prime lamb sires,
particularly Poll Dorsets, Suffolks and Texels. There are some pure-breeds considered dual-
purpose (meat and wool) and the Corriedale is the most populous of these in Australia. A
discussion about the breed characteristics and the factors which make some breeds and
genotypes more suitable for particular environments is beyond the scope of this text, but is
essential knowledge for veterinarians working with sheep.
Production objective

Production objectives vary between farms within districts and between districts but, in
commercial Merino flocks [2], the chief objective is to maximize income from the sale of wool.
Nevertheless, additional income is derived from the sale of surplus sheep. Some Merino
properties join a portion of the ewe flock to Border Leicester rams, so then income from wool
is supplemented by the sale of prime or unfinished crossbred lambs and crossbred ewe
lambs or hoggets. On prime-lamb properties the chief objective is to maximize income from
the sale of prime lambs, however significant income is derived from the sale of crossbred
wool and cast-for-age (CFA) ewes. In stud flocks and other ram-breeding flocks, the
production objectives different in emphasis from commercial flocks.

Flock structure and stocking rate

Flock structure and stocking rate will be examined in later chapters. It remains now in this
introduction to consider the management calendar.

Farm management calendars

The timing of major sheep husbandry and management events on farms (the farm
management calendar) is important information to veterinarians for three reasons. First, the
timing of events may be an important predisposing factor to outbreaks of disease. The
clearest examples of this are the relationship between the time of lambing and the incidence
of pregnancy toxaemia in ewes; and the incidence of nutrition related disease in recently
weaned lambs. Second, preventive medicine strategies, like drenching, vaccinating or footrot
control, should be integrated with other management events which require mustering, to save
time and labour for the farm operator. Third, the timing of particular management strategies
can have implications for total farm productivity unrelated to occurrences of disease. This
latter area is generally not considered the role of the general practitioner but forms a
significant part of the activities of sheep specialist veterinarians.
Management calendars depend on whether the farm is a non-breeding or breeding
enterprise. The optimisation of the management calendar for a particular farm depends on the
production objective and is complex, being influenced by environmental, disease and
economic considerations. On non-breeding farms, the key decision is when to shear. On
breeding properties the key decision is when to join, followed by when to shear. The timing of
most other husbandry practices will be related to these key decisions.

Non-breeding flocks

On non-breeding properties, the sheep husbandry practices include some or all of the
following:

• (a) shearing and wool classing


• (b) dipping or the use of ' pour ons'
• (c) crutching
• (d) jetting
• (e) drenching
• (f) foot paring and bathing
• (g) vaccination
• (h) purchase and disposal of sheep

A sample calendar for a farm in western NSW running strong-wool (.24μ) Merino wethers only
is shown in Table 1.1.

Table 1.1 : Hypothetical management calendar for a non-breeding flock

Practice Time Comments


Shearing May - September Why not in
the warmer months?
Dipping 2 to 3 weeks after shearing Or ' pour-on' immediately off-
shears. Are lice present and is
dipping necessary?
Crutching September - April, depending onHow much crutching do wethers
when shearing occurs require? What is the duration of
the blowfly season?
Jetting September - May If fly strike is occurring or likely to
occur
Drenching December and February Tactical treatments at other times
Pizzle rot prevention September Only necessary on improved
pastures

Breeding flocks

On breeding properties there are additional husbandry practices which relate to the
reproductive cycle and the management of pregnant and lactating ewes, lambs and weaners.
These include some or all of the following:

• (i) joining
• (j) pregnancy diagnosis
• (k) lambing
• (l) lamb marking/mulesing
• (m) weaning
• (n) culling breeders and
• (o) classing ewe hoggets.

A sample calendar for a Merino farm in southern NSW with winter rainfall and an autumn
lambing is shown in Table 1.2. An example for a Merino flock in northern NSW is shown in
Table 1.3. These calendars are, of course, incomplete. Not considered are such topics as:

• (1) nutritional management of ewes to regulate condition score at joining and lambing
• (2) management of the previous drop of weaners
• (3) worm, footrot, blowfly, control, and others.

Table 1.2 : Hypothetical management calendar for an autumn lambing Merino flock in
southern NSW (winter rainfall zone)

Practice Time Comments


Joining Dec - January For 6 weeks from 1 Dec
Crutching Early February Shear rams
Vaccinate all ewes April Pre-lambing booster
Lambing May - June Lamb over 7 weeks
Mark, mules and vaccinate Late June Lambs 1 to 8 weeks old
lambs
Wean lambs Early September At 3 to 4 months of age
Shearing September All sheep including rams
Class ewe hoggets September Before or at shearing
Purchase rams September Ready to join in December
Dip all sheep September 2 weeks off-shears
Sell cull maidens, CFA ewes, October
CFA rams
Isolate rams from ewes October 6 to 8 weeks before joining
Sell wether weaners November These weaners may be retained

Table 1.3 : Hypothetical management calendar for a spring lambing Merino flock in
northern NSW (summer rainfall zone)

Practice Time Comments


Joining March - April For 6 weeks from 1 March (inside the
breeding season)
Shearing June All sheep including rams
Dip all sheep July 2 weeks off-shears
Lambing August - September Lamb over 5-6 weeks
Mark, mules and vaccinateLate September Lambs 1 to 7 weeks old
lambs
Wean lambs Early December At 3 to 4 months of age
Purchase rams December To use in March
Crutching January Shear rams
Class maidens January
Sell cull maidens, CFA ewes,
CFA rams

The calendars in Tables 1.1 - 1.3, although fairly typical, would be optimal on only a small
proportion of Merino properties. As before, optimal is here defined in terms of farm profitability
and security for the client. Procedures for the optimisation of individual calendars will be
examined in subsequent chapters. This requires further examination of topics such as
stocking rate, seasonality in pasture quantity and quality, reproductive performance and
markets for lambs, weaners and other surplus sheep.
Although not discussed here, a calendar for an irrigation farm which produces prime lambs
from crossbred ewes would show marked differences from those illustrated. The availability of
irrigation gives the producer more control over seasonal pasture quantity and quality, and
hence more freedom to vary the time of joining and marketing.
Recommended Reading

Miller BG The Husbandry of cattle, sheep and other ruminants Handbook for Faculty of
Veterinary Science, First Year, Animal Husbandry (V101), The University of Sydney
Bell A (1991) Sheep management In Australian Sheep and Wool Handbook ed DJ Cottle,
Inkata Press, Melbourne p 255

[1] The word genotype usually describes a sub-population of a breed, the individuals of which
share distinctive genetic characteristics, and may therefore be used to denote a strain or a
bloodline of a breed.
[2] The term Commercial flocks refers to those flocks growing and selling wool or lambs as
their primary objective and in contrast to ram-breeding (including stud) flocks, where ram
sales are the primary source of income.