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Sustainable futures

Flocking to health clubs

Lameness in sheep is one of the biggest health and welfare problems for the UK’s 50,000 sheep farmers. It costs the industry around £80 million a year.

Dr Jasmeet Kaler said: “Flock health clubs are a cost effective tool in improving flock health management, reducing lameness and improving productivity.”

Most lameness is caused by foot rot – a bacterial infection. If spotted early enough in individual sheep, cases can be treated which in turn can prevent the problem spreading in the flock.

Dr Kaler’s initial research highlighted two key issues: lack of data recording on the farm limited decision-making and lack of contact between farmer and vet was proving detrimental to the overall health of sheep flocks.

She said: “We identified that there was a mismatch between how vets and sheep farmers engage with each other, particularly in proactive flock health planning. Our research findings led to Flock Health Clubs by an independent sheep veterinary consultant, Dr Fiona Lovatt. The success of the initial two pilots was followed by a nationwide campaign by the sheep industry and the creation of Flock Health Clubs by vets across the UK and internationally.”

Adoption of the research team’s ‘best practice guidelines’ – a collaboration with the University of Warwick - reduced the prevalence of lameness from 10% to 5%.

With funding from Innovate UK, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), Dr Kaler and her team have been working with the farming industry and leading software developers and technology companies to make monitoring and health management on sheep farms easier and address lack of data recording.

"There are now well over 60 Flock Health Clubs in the UK and the same model has been adopted in Norway, Ireland and Canada"
Dr Jasmeet Kaler

They have developed the first ‘lameness detector’. A small sensor worn on the sheep’s ear tag tracks the animal’s behaviour, movement and gait. Bespoke algorithms developed by Dr Kaler’s research team at the University of Nottingham register, through realtime remote monitoring, if the animal goes lame.

They have also created a plug-in for the Farm Wizard Sheep Manager software giving farmers instant access to their records and to keep details of when and where lameness occurred.

Dr Kaler said: “We are at the forefront of precision technology to develop innovative devices for flock health management and the automated detection of lameness.”

There are now well over 60 Flock Health Clubs in the UK and the same model has been adopted in Norway, Ireland and Canada. These vet facilitated discussion groups target and promote proactive health planning. They allow farmers with smaller flocks to share the cost of veterinary advice while maintaining regular, good quality contact with specialist vets.

The Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe (iSAGE) project has independently assessed the impact of Flock Health Clubs. It concluded that the clubs are a success, with farmer reports of improved veterinary engagement, a reduction in inappropriate medicine use and an improvement in the health of animals.

Dr Kaler said: “We are now working to develop innovative precision tools for animal health and welfare and these would improve data recording on farms and add to the success of Flock Health Clubs.”

Jasmeet Kaler

Dr Jasmeet Kaler is an Associate Professor in Epidemiology and Farm Animal Health in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science.

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