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AuctionsPlus calls for industry collaboration on footrot control

by Terry Sim, 21 April 2017

A footrot-affected sheep hoof. Photo – Central West Local Land Services.

AUSTRALIA’S largest seller of sheep – AuctionsPlus — has called for industry-wide collaboration on footrot control and management measures as reports of the disease’s spread in New South Wales continue.

AuctionsPlus is considering making provision of a sheep animal health statement mandatory for sale lots, but believes the solution to the issue includes more education and reliable tests to differentiate benign from virulent footrot.

Central West Local Land Services district veterinarians yesterday reported that virulent footrot continued to be diagnosed in sheep throughout the region.

District veterinarian, Dr Erica Kennedy said the Central West Local Land Services Biosecurity team has been working nearly full time on footrot for the past 10 months, trying to maintain the state’s footrot protected status.

NSW currently maintains a footrot protected status, meaning that the flock prevalence of virulent footrot in the state is less than 1 percent.

Increased prevalence likely due to buying infected sheep

Dr Kennedy said it is likely that the increased prevalence of footrot in our district is due to producers buying infected sheep and has been exacerbated by the prolonged wet weather in winter and spring last year.

“Purchasing stock online certainly has its benefits; though when it comes to animal disease more often than not buyers don’t realise that there’s a problem until it’s too late.

“This isn’t the only method of purchase where we suspect footrot has been brought onto a property; however, it features in many of our cases over the last few months,” she said.

Producers are encouraged to be vigilant when trading sheep or goats, ensure they are buying from reputable sources and request and examine the health statement closely before the stock arrive on farm.

AuctionsPlus strict on footrot questions

AuctionsPlus sells around 2.5 million sheep and lambs annually and chief executive officer Anna Speer said the online business had been working with the Livestock Biosecurity Network for two years on raising awareness with assessors and improving inspection practices.

AuctionsPlus’ assessment entry form asks if there is any history of footrot (benign or virulent) rather than the sheep health statement’s “to the best of my knowledge” question, Ms Speer said. She is not convinced making sheep health statement use mandatory for online sale lots will solve the problem.

“I think the bigger problem is, what is footrot and people drawing a line in the sand as to what is footrot.

“We’ve had a number of ‘mis-descriptions’, particularly more recently in the wetter weather, where one vet has said there is footrot and the other vet has said there is not,” she said.

“The challenge is at what point does scald or benign footrot turn into virulent footrot – it changes so dramatically when you go to a new environment.”

Ms Speer said AuctionsPlus has also worked with the Sheepmeat Council of Australia on improving awareness and implementing better on-farm biosecurity measures for sale sheep. She is open to suggestion on how to minimise footrot risk for purchasers.

“Some of our assessors are now doing tests before they sell their stock to check whether they had footrot.”

Ms Speer said the reason footrot in sale sheep might be more visible is because AuctionsPlus is the largest ‘saleyard’ in Australia and all of its information as publicly available.

“We take it really, really seriously and we make sure our assessors report scald, which I believe is benign footrot.

“I would love to see the industry as a whole sit down and address it head on and say what we need to do to make sure the farmers, the assessors and the buyers are aware,” she said.

“It is almost like we need to do a campaign to get people to talk about, because it is a notifiable disease.

“If we don’t talk about it and deal with it, and good management practices can deal with it, we’ll be running around in circles,” Ms Speer said.

“When we have a footrot issue we notify the Local Land Service or DPI equivalent, the vendors, agents and buyers.”

In one case, sale sheep were in transit when AuctionsPlus was told there was a footrot risk, which enabled affected sheep to be managed properly at their destination. Ms Speer said if there was test that could reliably determine the presence of footrot in sale sheep, all assessors would have it.

“AuctionsPlus does not want to be spreading disease in any way, shape or form.

“The virulent footrot bacteria lives in the soil, in saleyards and in truck crates if they are not cleaned out properly, so the whole industry needs to work together to find a solution,” Ms Speer said.

Isolate sale sheep to manage footrot risk

Virulent footrot is caused by the bacteria Dichelobacter nodosus and is notifiable under the Stock Diseases Act 1923.

Central West Local Land Services said any landholder, land manager, agent or veterinarian who suspects that footrot is present in a mob they have seen or have been consulted about is legally obliged to notify a district veterinarian within 48 hours. Failure to notify can result in regulatory action being taken.

Signs of footrot include lame sheep, inflammation of the skin between the toes and underrunning of the sole and heel of the foot. In some more severe cases sheep will lie down, walk on their knees and lose weight.

Once virulent footrot it’s diagnosed on a NSW property, immediate action is taken to limit spread and trace the source, Central West LLS said. The property is quarantined and an eradication plan developed. This can include total or partial destocking in conjunction with foot bathing, paring and inspecting sheep until the disease is gone, a process that in some cases can take years. This created a tremendous amount of work as investigation involves checking additional properties for signs of the disease as well as stock movements for at least the past two years, LLS said.

Central West LLS said it’s also a good idea to isolate newly introduced sheep or goats, and ensure they are healthy with no signs of lameness before integrating them into the main mob.

All producers should also concentrate on keeping fences in good condition to ensure straying sheep or goats are excluded.

If lame sheep or goats or any other signs of footrot are seen in NSW, LLS urged producers to call their nearest Central West Local Land Services district veterinarian.

Sources: Central West Local land Services, AuctionsPlus.

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