A care­ful farmer, a beau­ti­fully main­tained farm, good breed­ing sheep, but mys­te­ri­ously few lambs.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS TR­ISHA FISK

Sheep are a van­ish­ing species in the Far North, for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons. Some farm­ers are sick of deal­ing with manky hooves as the an­i­mals strug­gle with prob­lems due to the hu­mid con­di­tions. Others are tired of at­tacks by ne­glected hunt­ing dogs.

But there are a few tra­di­tional souls who pre­fer the work of the wool­shed and drench­ing a 50kg fluffy an­i­mal to the stink of dairy or beef cow shit and hav­ing to ar­gue with some­thing that weighs 600kg when­ever treat­ment is re­quired.

An­gus Mac­in­tyre was one. He had taken over the fam­ily farm and 1500 ewes about 10 years ago. He had done his time at Lin­coln Univer­sity, plus a bit of work on large sta­tions, and was grad­u­ally bring­ing his own touch to the farm.

The most ob­vi­ous change was in the breed­ing lines of the sheep. He was trend­ing away from pre­vi­ous generations of ‘fat lambs’ with South­down lines and opt­ing in­stead for an open-faced, easy­care an­i­mal.

He was right into tag­ging, record­ing, and keep­ing things sci­en­tific. A bit of an aca­demic, but the Vet reck­oned he looked af­ter the stock pretty well too.

One spring he rang the Vet for a bit of ad­vice.

“Well, I dunno what is go­ing on. I scanned the first lam­bers about six weeks af­ter tup­ping and reck­oned the lamb­ing rate would be pretty high among them. I didn’t bother do­ing the mixed aged ewes but I pal­pated ud­ders a month or so back and don’t think there were many emp­ties there ei­ther.

“But lamb­ing is well along now, and I’m just not get­ting the num­bers on the ground, es­pe­cially in the young ones. They should have fin­ished by now, but there’s only half as many lambs as ewes, and some of those lambs just don’t seem to have any go in them.”

“Ok,” said the Vet. “I’ll come and have a look and take some sam­ples. Have you no­ticed any aborted foe­tuses?”

“Well, there were a cou­ple of slips I found a fort­night or so ago but that seemed to be all so I didn’t worry. Maybe I should have. It was af­ter the cy­clone passed through and I just fig­ured the weather had brought them on a bit early.”

The Vet and I went out for the drive. We passed rolling pad­docks with the grass as short and tidy as a golf course. Plant­ings of trees pro­vided shel­ter for stock from the west­er­lies, and the troughs were on nice lit­tle hil­locks of shin­gle. An­gus met us by the wool­shed. “I found this freshly-dead lamb just af­ter talk­ing to you. Would it give you any clues?”

The Vet got out his post mortem knife and with a few quick slices from he had all four legs splayed wide, and then took off a slither of skin from brisket to groin. All the or­gans were then clearly dis­played. He was par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the liver.

“See these pale yel­lowy spots on the liver? Well I reckon you might have campy­lobac­ter. I will send some sam­ples away to get a def­i­nite di­ag­no­sis. But with what you have told me... I would think it highly likely.”

“Oh great. That is the one that causes abor­tion storms isn’t it?”

“Yep, it can drop your live lamb­ing rate up to 40%.”

“Just what we need. Will the ewes be ok?”

I dunno what is go­ing on. There’s only half as many lambs as ewes.

“That’s the good news. They might abort, but usu­ally come through with no last­ing ef­fects. They will go on shed­ding though. There are a cou­ple of likely species: Campy­lobac­ter je­juni and Campy­lobac­ter fe­tus, what we used to call vib­rio. It can be bad news for peo­ple too.”

“It was campy­lobac­ter that caused all those prob­lems in some town wa­ter sup­ply wasn’t it?”

“Amongst others, yes. You need to watch your­self and your fam­ily. Be care­ful with your hy­giene, es­pe­cially han­dling af­fected sheep or aborted lambs.” An­gus rubbed his chin. “Come to think of it, I had a good dose of the shits a while back. I just thought it was the cock­les the old man brought back from the coast. I came right in a few days. Funny thing is, he was ok, never got sick at all, the old rogue, and he ate more cock­les than me, so it might not have been the cock­les at all eh? Can I do any­thing now to stop the abor­tions?”

“It might be a bit late this sea­son,” said the Vet. “The time from in­fec­tion to abor­tion can be any­thing from a cou­ple of weeks to over three months so it could be a while be­fore the worst is over. But if you think the main flock is ok, then your job is to keep them that way. Make sure you don’t trans­mit the bac­te­ria be­tween the mobs. Do your lamb­ing checks on the clean mobs first. Don’t mix them up. And give your hands and boots a wash be­fore go­ing into the clean mob. Keep the quad out of the clean mob un­til lamb­ing is over any­way. Aborted ewes can be in­fec­tive for a long time.”

“Won’t they de­velop their own im­mu­nity?”

“Yes, the ones that have had it will. But you risk los­ing a heap more lambs with an abor­tion storm in the non­im­mune stock if we don’t get it right. There is a vac­cine avail­able now, give them that, then you know for sure ev­ery­thing is im­mune. Or you could try manag­ing it. Run the two mobs to­gether about a month over tup­ping. That should ex­pose most of them to it and they can get a nat­u­ral im­mu­nity.

“It is usu­ally trans­mit­ted via the feed or wa­ter. At this time of year it can sur­vive on the pad­dock for about 20 days. But your wa­ter­ways are fenced off and your troughs are well placed so it must have come in from out­side. Have you brought in any new stock lately?”

“No, but we did have a huge flock of black-backed gulls camp­ing down on the flats for a week or so. They all came in­land ahead of that cy­clone and that’s where I had set-stocked the young ewes.”

“That could be it then... storm clouds re­ally were gath­er­ing.” An­gus shook his head. “Yeah... for an abor­tion storm. Well bug­ger it, is all I can say.” n

TR­ISHA FISK is a farmer, au­thor of Prac­ti­cal Small­farm­ing in New Zealand, and long-time as­sis­tant to her hus­band in his vet work. They now live on 4ha near Whangarei and Tr­isha con­cen­trates on her art:

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