Visiting expert showcases footrot vaccine

The survey shows farmer sentiment has stabilised after concerns about government intervention.
Footrot is estimated to be a $10m problem for New Zealand's sheep industry. Photo: ODT files
Footrot is a nasty and complex disease.

Estimated as a $10 million problem for New Zealand's sheep industry, the infection caused major changes to the hoof, resulting in lameness and loss of production.

Dr Om Dhungyel from the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney has devoted much of his career to footrot research.

Last week, Dr Dhungyel was in Otago, talking to farmers about footrot and a vaccine he has helped develop which is now on the market.

He has spent years involved with various footrot projects, including the development of strain-specific footrot vaccine technology.

That vaccine was used to eradicate footrot from the Nepalese and Bhutanese sheep flocks and was now being used in parts of Australia.

Originally from Bhutan, Dr Dhungyel completed an undergraduate degree in veterinary science from Kerala Agricultural University in India and worked as a veterinary officer in Bhutan for five years.

In the 1990s, he was awarded an FAO fellowship to undertake a postgraduate degree at the University of Sydney.

After completing those studies, he worked on an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research-funded project on footrot in sheep and goats in Nepal.

He successfully made a recombinant DNA footrot vaccine which was used to control and eliminate endemic footrot in that country.

He also worked on a similar project in Bhutan and on other footrot projects and research collaborations in India, China and Malaysia.

Footrot was a very complex issue and it came at a huge cost, not just economically but also the welfare cost, he said.

It was "almost everywhere" from Norway to South Africa, Uruguay to the United Kingdom - "wherever there are sheep, there's footrot" - and it was chronic in New Zealand and Australia. It was more prevalent in fine-wool sheep.

In Bhutan, the outbreak was only on one farm and it was not such a big issue, as it was predominantly goats that were farmed. But in Nepal, with its migratory system of farming, having footrot in that system "really crippled the industry".

He said it was up to farmers whether they wanted to use the vaccine which was targeted to individual farms.

While there were always issues to deal with - "if it works, it works really well", he said.

With strong recent wool prices, fine wool farmers were able to spend more money on disease control which was a "big plus", he said.

Dave Robertson, of Veterinary Centre Oamaru, who organised Dr Dhungyel's visit, said there had been a lot more footrot around recently due to the weather conditions.

Traditionally, properties that had not had footrot for 10 to 30 years had their first cases in the last 12 months.

There were traditional ways of dealing with the disease that did help, including tipping sheep over, troughing them and using antibiotics.

But some people felt that there had to be "something else out there" to help them eradicate footrot.

It had been proven in the past that it could be eradicated with inspection and culling and troughing and attention to detail. But that also consumed much of the annual workload, he said.

Mr Robertson recently spoke to a farmer who wanted to get better control of his footrot problem.

The pair looked at what it was going to cost putting in additional troughs and additional people power to take a traditional approach to dealing with it. It was estimated that would cost at least $100,000.

Mr Robertson was "cautiously enthused" about the vaccine technology that Dr Dhungyel had helped developed.

It would not be for everyone and he believed it would particularly have its place where farmers might have had a recent incursion of footrot and there was a chance of only one or two strains.

Looking at the data on antibodies levels, it did look very promising, with more than eight months antibody protection.

It was about employing some different thinking and new technology to come up with a really good solution to an animal disease problem, he said.

While antibiotics did work, it was now an era where people were trying to reduce the use of antibiotics, particularly in food producing animals. Vaccines also provided sustained protection against reinfection, he said.

Lynnore Templeton, who farms near Middlemarch with husband Andrew, said footrot was a big problem for farmers.

It involved a "huge" amount of money and affected a large majority of sheep farmers.

At their property, The Rocks, they had a foot soundness programme that they were working with their vet on to minimise the effects of footrot.

They had been involved with the work being done by Dr Dhungyel, taking swabs from their own sheep.

From the initial trials, the results were looking quite good and Mrs Templeton said they fully supported efforts to come up with another way of dealing with the disease.

Dr Dhungyel is giving presentations in Omarama tomorrow and Wedderburn and Middlemarch on Wednesday.


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