Researchers seek sheep for lameness study

Alberta producers requested the research study as a result of similar work being done in the beef sector

There’s not much Canadian information about lameness in sheep, its prevalence and various causes.

A group of researchers plan to change that through a two-year study, and to do so they need producers to provide information about lameness in their flocks.

Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, one of several researchers involved in the project, acknowledges that sheep owners might not be eager to share information about such problems.

“It’s a really sensitive issue,” she said.

“Some producers that may be having issues are reluctant to come forward sometimes. We want to make sure that they know that it’s confidential and that their individual identification or location is never divulged.”

Researchers will study lameness in ewe flocks and in feedlot animals. Participants with ewe flocks will be asked to fill out a questionnaire about lame animals’ age, breed, diagnosis and treatment. Photos of the affected animal are also welcomed.

On the feedlot side, researchers will visit and collect data on site, said Schwartzkopf-Genswein.

“Initially, when we started with this (project application), the industry was really crying out for help. They were having some concerns about lameness,” she said.

“It really came as a spin-off from our beef work because when the sheep industry saw or heard about our lameness project in the beef cattle feedlot, they said, ‘can you do something similar for sheep?’ ”

Background information about the study indicates that lameness is a common cause of welfare and economic concerns in the Canadian domestic flock, which numbers about one million head. There are about 2,000 sheep operations in Alberta.

“In Alberta, we see limping sheep on farms, in feedlots, auctions and out grazing,” the study background said.

“At one time, there was a provincial foot rot eradication program. Veterinary inspections, foot trimming and foot soaking were standard annual procedures for the 20,000 plus sheep that headed to B.C. forestry cut blocks.

“Despite all the effort, time and money, lame sheep are still common. Canadian sheep and lamb producers consider lameness a serious health and welfare issue, resulting in high culls rates of breeding stock, reduced ewe productivity, slow growth performance of feeder lambs and high labour and treatment costs to manage these animals.”

Schwartzkopf-Genswein said there are infectious and non-infectious causes.

Arthritis, foot rot, shelly hoof and digital dermatitis are examples of infectious causes, while cuts, scrapes and handling injuries are obviously in the non-infectious category.

She plans to culture the bacteria that are identified as culprits, which might be of use later should work be done on vaccine development. As well, researchers will attempt to learn how foot infections spread among the flock.

For now, however, it’s a matter of collecting basic data.

“Right now this project is just really a fact finding mission. We need to kind of characterize what’s there,” she said.

“If you don’t have that, how can you go towards creating a vaccine or whatever other mitigation strategies you can employ?”

The other researchers involved in the study, which is funded by Alberta Agriculture, include Dr. Kathy Parker, Dr. Joyce Van Donkersgoed, Dr. Dorte Dopfer and Dr. Wiolene Montanari-Nordi.

Producers interested in participating in the study can call 403-915-5864.

A copy of the questionnaire can be found via Alberta Lamb at bit.ly/2rhjJQa.

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