10 things to think about when buying and selling sheep

18th April 2017

Emily Gascoigne Emily Gascoigne Em_the_SheepVet

Emily is a farm animal practitioner covering Dorset, Somerset and East Devon with Synergy Farm Health Ltd. She has a specialist interest in sheep and in her spare time has a small flock of Pedigree Hebridean Sheep.

Please note: the views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of SellMyLivestock.

These ten points come from a place of experience but also with the message of “do as I say, not as I do”. I have learnt the hard way by ignoring my own advice in favour of “that gorgeous tup” and introducing orf virus into my sheep flock. We managed to stamp out the fire quickly at home and a robust quarantine period protected the rest of my flock but it could have been disastrous.  

I also spend a large amount of my working life managing diseases introduced as purchase and non-more heart breaking than sheep scab or contagious ovine digital dermatitis, a highly virulent form of infectious lameness. Both of these conditions are miserable for the sheep infected and for the forlorn shepherd managing them, so savvy shopping is essential.

Below are a series of top tips I recommend including some from wise shepherds who shared pearls of wisdom in the early days of my sheep keeping.

So here are some rules to think about when “sheep shopping”. These rules apply to the singular tup or batch of replacements and equally to sheep returning from loan or common grazing.

1. Buy the best you can afford.  There is no such thing as a bargain, why is an animal as cheap as it is and what has everyone else spotted? Be realistic about what you are buying. If you are buying an aged tup because you like his breeding, that’s fine but be realistic about his likely working life span.

Equally are you compromising on a fundamental trait necessary for a sheep? From my experience breeding pedigree tups, it took me a whole generation to correct an overshot bite my ewe lambs had inherited! This might not be so important in fat lamb production by may limit the working lifespan of the tup himself.

2. Be careful buying projects.  A very experienced shepherd I used to show alongside bought a tup at bargain prices at a sale. He always told me of how forlorn the animal looked at the sale, how thin and scouring he was but the shepherd had an instinct he “would come good”. In this case the tup did, but it was a risky strategy. Without robust management this ram could have introduced resistant worms, liver fluke to the farm or a series of other infectious diseases such as Maedi visna (a lung virus causing wasting), Johnes (a bacteria causing wasting) and OPA (a virus causing lung tumours) or Orf in the case of my own purchase. Projects can be expensive. Testing whilst in isolation can identify these diseases.

3. Isolate Isolate Isolate. Three weeks please on a paddock specifically for this purpose. We strictly enforced this with my “Orf tup” whilst we got all of the above in order. Essential.

4. Is he itching? Be under no illusion, the sheep scab population is alive and well in the national sheep flock to the extent we should assume all are infected prior to purchase. Animals carrying scab are rarely itching at the time of purchase so this is not one which can be spotted pen side. Getting an approved dipper to plunge dip the animals whilst in quarantine or using injectable macrocyclic lactones should prevent introduction. This should be taken really seriously. If you introduce sheep scab on farm, as well as being a welfare issue (I am itching just thinking about it as I write), ewes drop in condition affecting scanning, ewe body condition score etc and necessitate whole flock treatment. Invest a small amount of time and cost in your purchased sheep to prevent a big job later!

The first clues of Scab

5. Worms. An illuminating piece of work from Wales (Thomas et al, 2015) found that 28% of flocks in their study had evidence of triple resistance to worms and a further 19% of flocks had quadruple resistance to gut worms i.e. white, yellow, basic clears such as ivermectin and long acting clears such as moxidectin, wouldn’t work on the farm. In my opinion, the quickest and easiest way to completely change your farms resistance status for the worse if to buy in sheep carrying resistant worms and a serious threat to the long term performance of your farm. Given the extent of resistance we should be using one of the Purple or Orange drenches as part of quarantine control to all incoming animals without exception.

6. Fluke. There are increasing reports of Triclabendazole resistance cases in liver fluke i.e. products such as Fasinex® and Tribex® won’t kill acute fluke on some farms. These products are hugely important for flocks like ours in the South West where acute fluke mid-summer is a real challenge and these are the only products which will clear infection. So bringing in resistant strains would be a disaster. If bringing animals in from a fluke risk area, or an unknown areas, I recommend treating with Triclabendazole initially to make sure animals are safe, and then following up five weeks later with a product such as Closantel to remove those fluke surviving the first drench.

7. Feet. Bringing in footrot or CODD will have the most explosive impact on your flock with short incubation periods. My advice for avoiding a “foot fault” are never buy lame sheep, isolate animals for three weeks, prompt treatment of any lame sheep, and at the end of isolation only sending the sound sheep into the flock.

A foot with CODD

8. Maedi visna. MV is a virus of sheep which causes chronic wasting in sheep flocks, increased culling and drops in performance. There is evidence that MV is increasing in the national flock and we see clinical cases in practice. But there is good news! There are lots of Maedi visna accredited flocks across the county who have invested in demonstrating their freedom from MV. If you are not a MV accredited flock, that’s ok, you can still source replacements from these flocks too. To find accredited flocks look at this website….

9. Vaccines. Remember to bring the vaccination of your newly purchased animals up to the level of your main flock. Clostridial vaccination is a classic example, but you may also wish to chat to your vet about relative risk of abortion agents when buying in replacement females. Allow enough time for replacements to be on farm and vaccinated before needing to go the tup.

10. The most important.  The above may sound daunting, but they are necessary because of point number 10. A wise shepherd once told me “You’ve got to like what you look at over the gate”. This is absolutely true. If you have making a financial investment in some cracking ewe lambs, a spectacular tup for his genetic potential, because they are the future of the flock, it’s important that rules 1-9 are in place, to ensure we reap the rewards of our investment (and equally that they don’t bring some hidden expenses with them).

Speak to your sheep vet about quarantine so you can develop a flock specific strategy depending on where you are buying sheep from. Buying in sheep in the single time in the flock calendar when you make your business vulnerable to the health status of everyone else’s flock.

Finally, enjoy your sheep shopping, it’s an exciting time for your flock, new potential, new bloodlines and new futures. But be savvy. Be a wise shepherd!

Further reading:

10 things you love about summer on the farm

10 ways R.A.B.I can help working people and their families…

10 ways you might be farming in the future…

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