Call for lamb marking pain relief declaration on sheep NVD

Terry Sim, October 19, 2018

Keith Quail uses Numnuts to put a ring on a Leeming lamb this month.

AUSTRALIA’S National Vendor Declaration for sheep should also enable statements on the use of pain relief for lamb castration and tail ring application, according to western Victorian producer Tim Leeming.

The Leeming operation recently tested the world’s first hand-held combined pain relief delivery, and lamb castration and tail docking tool – Numnuts – which is due for limited release in Australia next year.

The tool enables an operator to apply rubber rings for castration and tail-docking, and also inject 1.5ml of quick-acting local anaesthetic at the base of a lamb’s testicle or tail for relief from the immediate pain experienced from the procedures.

“This could add another tick the box on the NVD or a quality assurance program that allows these (Numnuts-treated) lambs to access a higher value market,” Mr Leeming said.

Tim and his wife Georgie run about 7500 breeding ewes on 1530 hectares at Pigeon Ponds in south-west Victoria. They stopped mulesing their Paradoo Prime self-replacing maternal composite flock in 1995. Mr Leeming was also recently re-appointed as western Victorian chair of Meat & Livestock Australia’s Southern Australia Meat Research Council.

Mr Leeming’s comments follow the recent call from South Australian sheep producer Andrew Michael for the NVD to allow non-mulesing flock owners to declare the animal welfare status of lambs and sheep – especially mulesing status.

Pain relief options help sheep meat’s image – Leeming

Pigeon Ponds sheep producer Tim Leeming. Picture – MLA.

Mr Leeming said the Paradoo Prime operation is not under any quality assurance program, but he supported the sheep NVD allowing specific animal welfare status declarations, including for non-mulesing and pain relief.

“I would love that.

“Wouldn’t you love someone to buy that lamb in Europe or America and the buyer could access some footage showing these bloodless treatments?” he said.

“The thing that we couldn’t hang our hat on was that obvious image of writhing pain lambs on the ground when they left the cradle, that’s something we couldn’t show – now we can video it.

“It’s the whole image and they trot back to the paddock – they know they have a ring on them, but they are not going to be in excruciating pain,” Mr Leeming said.

“And that whole image is a really good image and someone swiping their lamb cutlets in a cryovac pack in Europe could go to that property and see that sort of image, that’s great.”

Sheep Producers Australia inherited a policy from its predecessor, the Sheepmeat Council of Australia, that prime lambs should not be mulesed and producers should be encouraged to introduce genetics and management changes to enable prime lamb mothers not to be mulesed.

Mr Leeming believed it would be feasible to ban mulesing of prime lamb mothers and second cross mothers in maternal flocks in Australia. Any wrinkly or fly strike-prone sheep in maternal or first cross ewe flocks could be culled and maternal breeder should be seeking genetics to phase out mulesing, he said.

“We could do that (ban) tomorrow, but we certainly can’t do it with Merino sheep.

“The implications of banning mulesing in Merino sheep tomorrow would be a 20pc increase in fly strike – it would be a lose-lose situation,” he said.

“But there doesn’t need to be a ban (in maternal flocks) if we’ve got that tick the box thing on the NVD ….

“If you’ve got that there, it would be great if Woolworths, Coles, ALC and JBS Swift – or whoever is buying lambs – could see that,” Mr Leeming said.

“It would put us in line with our direct competitor, in New Zealand; we would be at no disadvantage if we could supply those lambs.

“We just can’t stick our head in the sand, we need to be proactive,” he said.

“This is the time when we have got a bit of extra cash to probably go the extra mile in research and try new things on farm, whether it is pain relief or whatever.”

Numnuts use allowed efficient mob movement

Mr Leeming said 2500 4-6 week-old composite lambs were marked with Numnuts this month.

“They had a good size about them and that was a good test because usually they are the ones that get knocked around when the rings are put on them.”

Mr Leeming said throughput was good and his lamb marking contractor estimated the use of the Numnuts applicator slowed down marking by only about five percent.

“He reckons he will get better at it so he didn’t think there was much loss in efficiency.”

About 1200 lambs in four mobs were marked on the last day including a one hour-long property shift, with three on the cradle giving a Gudair injection, 6-in-1 clostridial vaccination, putting in ear tags, applying a fly strike preventative and marking with rings.

Mr Leeming said the Numnuts applicator was not super-heavy and it was not difficult to “pull the trigger” to apply the ring. He also hoped use of the Numnuts tool should help end the use of gas-heated hot knives to dock tails.

Mr Leeming said his stockman Bose Kelly estimated use of Numnuts enabled a 50-75pc reduction in the time needed to get a mob of ewes with recently-marked lambs back to their paddock.

“That, at the end of the day and when you are trying to get mobs in and out during marking, that time waiting around, trying to get lambs moving that are lagging behind, is huge in terms of the potential impact in terms of mismothering.

“These (Numnuts-treated) lambs just trotted back with their mums,” he said.

Mr Leeming is keen to get a few properties involved with BestWool BestLamb groups across Victoria to do some producer demonstration sites to get “dollar data” on the efficiencies associated with Numnuts use.

Numnuts licensed to Scottish company Senesino for launch

Numnuts is the result of a partnership between MLA and Scottish product design and engineering firm 4c Design, to drive improvements in animal husbandry practices and animal welfare outcomes. It has been licensed to Senesino for delivery to the Australian sheep industry with a pilot launch set for 2019.

Lead CSIRO researcher, Dr Alison Small, said extensive animal trials of Numnuts in Australia have produced positive results.

“Detailed research studies have been carried out at the CSIRO Chiswick field station, and in addition, commercial trials were carried out for both Merinos and crossbreds on five commercial farms in Australia during the 2018 marking season.

“There was a significant reduction in pain–related behaviours such as the ‘tucked up’ posture, bleating and lying down when sheep were treated using the Numnuts tool, as compared with just having rubber rings applied.”

MLA program manager Health, Welfare & Biosecurity, Dr Johann Schröder, said the tool will allow producers to administer effective pain relief in a safe, controlled and fast-acting manner without the need for a veterinarian to be present, making it a practical and economically viable option for on-farm use.

Numnuts founder and inventor, Senesino director Robin Smith, said more than 15,000 lambs have been given pain relief at marking time using the Numnuts system, and it had been scientifically proven to reduce the acute pain spike inherent in tail docking and castration by up to 65pc.

“Animal behavioural science studies investigated the response and effectiveness of our system in field trials by CSIRO in Australia and in pen trials by Moredun Research Institute in Scotland.

“In Australia, animal husbandry practice guidelines recommend marking lambs between two and eight weeks of age, and Numnuts is designed to be used on lambs up to 12 weeks of age,” Mr Smith said.

Mr Smith anticipated the Numnuts device would cost about $200, while the cost per procedure is expected to be in the region of 65 cents.

“So, assuming equal numbers of male and females and that the procedure will be done on both tails and scrotums, it works out close to $1 per lamb,” Mr Smith said.

“The industry is responding to the growing interest from consumers and retailers in the husbandry of animals and the need for an improved marking tool.

“These are important husbandry practices – tail docking reduces soiling of wool with urine and faeces. This reduces the risk of sheep contracting the painful and potentially fatal disease, fly strike, and reduces the risk of carcase contamination in the abattoir,” he said.

Mr Smith said Senesino is aiming to make Numnuts available to about 500 sheep producers, marking contractors and vets in Australia in mid-2019 for the pilot launch.

Interested producers and industry stakeholders can register their interest in Numnuts here or get in touch on Twitter. Australian Wool Innovation (AWI), the Moredun Foundation and CSIRO contributed to the development of Numnuts.


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  1. Robin Smith, November 8, 2018

    Hi Bruce,

    Robin here – I am the creator of the Numnuts device. You ask a good question.

    Before developing Numnuts, the first people we spoke to were farmers and vets. Vets told us, based on 30 years of research in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, that their preferred drug for pain relief for castration and tail docking with rings is injectable local anaesthesia. It provides fast-acting pain relief. The vast majority of pain from rings is experienced in the first 45 minutes, when nerves conduct pain sensations to the brain caused by the loss of blood flow to the scrotum and tail. Local anaesthetic blocks this pain conduction.

    With this veterinary advice on board, we then looked at the key issues for farmers and contractors around administering localised fast-acting pain relief in a farm environment. The key issues were:

    1. Speed: we need to avoid anything that slows down the marking operation, such as the double action of putting one tool down to pick up another, or that requires a second operator. The cost of double operation, multiplied by the thousands of lambs that are going through Australian production systems each year, is greater that the cost of our system.

    2. Safety: we need to minimise the risks of needle stick injury and inappropriate use of a vet-supplied S4 drug. The Numnuts system keeps the needle well away from the human operator. Most vaccinators we have seen on farms have been used without needle guards. The ones with guards are bulkier at the tip, can be more fiddly and slower to operate, and make it difficult to access the tight confined spaces we need to get to around the tail and testicles. The design of the Numnuts ‘pain relief cartridge’ helps prevent misuse of the S4 drug.

    3. Skill: we need to build into the instrument the skill needed for accurate delivery of local anaesthetic. The key to using small doses of local anaesthetics is the very accurate placement of the drug that is required to block the spermatic and dorsal nerves that transmit pain. The unique aspect of Numnuts is the consistent positioning it enables, without requiring an in-depth knowledge of sheep anatomy. This design feature of Numnuts took a long time to develop and is patented. We use the Elastrator ring as an integral part of the system. The ring bunches the nerves together and holds them firmly in position for accurate, targeted delivery of the local anaesthetic to exactly where it is needed to achieve maximum pain relief benefit, each time, every time. It is the high levels of repeatability and throughput, combined with lower levels of operator skill, that we believe makes this device special and good value. An alternative is for the farmer to employ a vet to perform the procedure with local anaesthetic.

    It has taken a great deal of R&D to create Numnuts. I hope what we have built will be of value to the Australian farming community (and their sheep!), and that it will also appeal to domestic and international consumers of Australian sheep products.

  2. Bruce Dumbrell, October 31, 2018

    Why can’t the pain relief be administered in the first cradle, when say ear tagging or vaccinating, and rings applied as usual with the standard ring applicator in the last cradle before release? A standard vaccinator to administer pain relief would be cheaper and easier to use than the bulky Numnuts tool. Just asking.

  3. Kim Haywood, October 19, 2018

    The NVD is the main document upholding Australia’s red meat and livestock food safety reputation. When an LPA NVD is signed, the producer is declaring compliance with LPA and the industries food safety program. The national working dog associations asked the NLIS Taskforce if they would consider including the nationally agreed working dog codes of welfare practice as a subsection of the LPA welfare module, but this request was rejected on the grounds that this was a welfare matter and the LPA NVD aims to ensure compliance with food safety, not animal welfare. Perhaps all this needs to be revisited?

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