VET’S DIARY: It could be time to throw away the foot trimmers

The loss of traditional skills from the countryside has been the lament of the older generation for centuries, writes Cameron Roberts.

As farming practices change, the old ways of doing things are succeeded by ‘superior’ methods – for better or worse.

However, what was once one of the shepherd’s most vital skills might soon have to join this long list of forgotten techniques.

There is a growing collection of data that shows that foot trimming may in fact be detrimental to the foot health of the flock.

The main reason is that in fit and healthy animals, any intervention is more likely to cause damage to the foot and potentially introduce infection.

If the horn is cut too far back so the sole starts weight bearing and the effect is only exacerbated. As for the old saying ‘no blood, no good’, I’m sure you can all guess what the research says about that.

But what about poor feet, surely the trimmers are needed to deal with a case of foot rot or DD?

Again, no they’re not. If anything, they cause even more damage. Recent studies have shown that foot trimming has a negative effect on the outcome of an infectious foot disease for two reasons.

Firstly, cutting the hoof slows the rate of healing of the infected foot. Also, any trimmings left lying around and even the shears themselves are laden with bacteria which inevitably end up transmitting infection to other sheep in the flock.

Even dipping the shears in some disinfectant doesn’t completely sterilise them.

So, not only are individual sheep lamer for longer, but a higher proportion of the flock will be affected.

Current thinking on treatment of foot rot, scald and the like says that the best course of action in these cases is to apply blue oxytetracyline spray liberally and give a long-acting antibiotic such as oxytetracyline or amoxicillin. Isolating these animals from the flock for 14 days is desirable to minimise contamination of the pasture or shed in the recovery period.

Foot bathing is especially useful for dealing with group outbreaks (handy tip – put some wool off-cuts in the bath to encourage sheep to run through).

As for routine foot management, ideally areas where sheep walk should be kept as clean, clear of debris and as dry as possible to reduce the chance of infection or damage to the foot.

The flock should be checked a couple of times a week so that lame sheep can be treated swiftly. This will help quickly reduce lameness rates in the flock.

As we look ahead to the start of the tupping season, exactly the same advice should be applied to all the boys in the flock.

The temptation to trim back any overgrown horn is strong, but that results in a high risk of a foot infection, which will certainly stop the tups getting to work this autumn.

Lameness currently affects about 10 per cent of the national flock, but with good management, this could realistically be reduced to around two per cent. Apart from anything else, imagine the time this would save!

Maybe you could ask grandpa to show you how the scythe works.