Necropsies can boost sheep, goat profitability

Producers are encouraged to carry out their own necropsies and send photos to a vet or veterinary college for analysis

DUNDURN, Sask. — Sheep and goat producers could reduce death rates in their flocks and herds and boost their bottom lines by making better use of necropsies, said a veterinarian.

Many farmers never learn the cause when ewes and lambs die, said Fritz Schumann from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.

“If you want them (sheep and goats) as a production unit and make a living off of it, you need to deal with it the same way you deal with other livestock. You need to have a program in place, management in place and you need to know why they die,” said Schumann, who held a necropsy session at the Healthy Sheep and Goat Field Day near Dundurn June 8. 

Sheep and goat producers gathered around Schumann during his sessions, where he provided a basic show and tell as he performed necropsies.

The low price of sheep coupled with veterinary expenses prevent many producers from asking for necropsies, said Schumann.

However, larger sheep operations are conducting more of them to take advantage of increasing demand for sheep, mutton and goat meat, which is driven largely by the ethnic populations.

He encouraged producers to carry out their own necropsies and send photos to their vet or to him at the veterinary college for analysis.

If a large number of animals are dying, producers should ask for a lab diagnosis.

For the best diagnosis, producers need to preserve tissue by freezing, particularly if there are several concurrent deaths and they live far from the nearest lab, he said.

In cases in which more than two percent of ewes are aborting fetuses, he recommended producers submit directly to a lab or freeze the fetus and placenta for later diagnosis.

He said it’s important to know the cause of death of lambs that die within the first three to four days of birth.

“That’s mostly a management issue and you need to know why that happens to change your management practices,” he said.

Generally, a low percentage of lambs that die during this period are due to infection unless it’s a herd outbreak.

Most deaths are stillborn, or the result of dystocia, lack of colostrum or cold temperatures.

“With sheep and goats, dystocia is the most common reason why they die between one and three days,” he said.

Stillbirths can be determined by looking to see if membranes still surround the hoof. This would indicate the lamb never moved or walked.

Another way is to put a lung in water. If it sinks, it had no oxygen and the lamb had never breathed.

Signs of dystocia include a yellow-stained hair coat, which would indicate the lamb struggled to get out of the uterus, or that the ewe had problems delivering.

If the lamb’s head or tongue is swollen and there is fluid under the hide in the neck and head, then death was probably due to dystocia.

Hemorrhaging under the skin and bruising on the organs, which might include a ruptured liver, are also signs of dystocia.

If there are no milk clots in a dead lamb’s first stomach, it never ingested colostrum.

Another way to determine feeding is to look at the intestine’s lymph ducts to see if they are filled with a whitish fluid, indicating colostrum was absorbed. If there is no sign of this, the lamb succumbed to starvation or hypothermia.

Schumann compared pink healthy lungs of sheep to ones that were darker in colour and infected.

Without a necropsy and diagnoses, he said many producers could be fooled by the real cause of death.

“The bloated lamb was a good example. It looked bloated and I bet you 99 percent of people would say the lamb died of bloat, but most probably in the final stages of its life it died of bloat. 

“But the bloat was caused because it had a chronic lung infection. So, if you wouldn’t do a necropsy you wouldn’t know,” he said.

“That’s why I think it’s ideal that producers do a necropsy and send pictures and we can help them that way…. If I get pictures I will contact the people and tell them what I think and if I don’t know, I tell them I’m not sure and give them a plan of what needs to be done.”

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