Farrell Flat sheep producer Michael Burge had to jump his biggest hurdle in 40 years when 50 per cent of his Merino flock was diagnosed with footrot.
In a bid to encourage other producers to become more transparent and active in stopping the spread of the highly transferable disease, Michael and his son Luke shared their story at a footrot information session at Marrabel this month.
It took the Burges until this year to be cleared of footrot by Biosecurity SA after undertaking a vigorous 12-month program to rid the self-replacing flock of the bacteria.
Running 5000 Merino breeders, Michael said he suspected he had a severe footrot issue in 2015 and when lame sheep were spotted, 3000 sheep were put through a zinc footbath in September.
"We were of the impression that it had killed the bacteria, which is does, but it only kills what is on the surface, not what is up inside the hoof," Michael said.
"That is where it spreads to and you will never get rid of it if you do not do foot paring," he added.
In September 2016, the Burges received an official footrot diagnosis and confirmed what they had already suspected.
"Luke and I were gutted to get that final diagnosis but at the same time we were grateful because we were able to start moving forward with the process," Michael said.
In December last year, footrot contractor Jason Treloar inspected 3000 sheep.
"We separated clean sheep from the infected and pared back all hooves with lesions," Michael said.
"Sheep with four and five score lesions were shorn and sold directly to the abattoir," he added.
Three trailer loads of hoof trimmings were removed from the flock and Michael said at first, sheep looked worse rather than better.
"The cement floors in the sheep yard were red with blood, but after the zinc bath and a couple of weeks’ rest, it was amazing to see how they had healed up and were in a better state of health," he said.
"We had a 50pc infection rate so we actually had a pretty severe problem."
Three weeks later all sheep that previously had lesions were zinc bathed again and reassessed.
Any breeders that did not respond to the zinc treatment were shorn and sold.
The decision to conduct such a strict process was the key to getting through the disease’s outbreak in 12 months, Michael says.
“Six weeks later we brought the whole flock back in and we did not find one that had footrot,” Michael added.
“The attention to detail and selling infected sheep was what got us through the process in a year, so we were lucky to come through it.”
Make tough choices to hasten recovery
Receiving a footrot diagnosis is not a life sentence, but Farrell Flat sheep producer Michael Burge urged farmers not to bury their heads in the sand.
After taking a 10 per cent hit to his flock numbers to clear his Merino sheep from the disease in the past 12 months, Mr Burge said he would do it again because it was a vital step in the process.
“A neighbour elected not to cull his badly infected sheep and he is now going through a second year of the program, so he has another 12 months ahead of him,” he said.
“Out of 3000 ewes we removed 300 and we elected to take a hit in the hope to come out of it a bit earlier, and we have.”
Mr Burge advised producers to be more vigilant with sheep flocks and investigate causes of lame sheep thoroughly.
“Once you find lesions on a sheep you can not mistake it for anything else other than footrot,” he said.
He recommended seeking expert advice and a diagnosis.
“Do not be an ostrich like I was and think you can deal with it yourself, because you cannot and all the foot bathing in the world will not cure it,” he said.
“Hoof paring was a long process but it needed to be done, sheep were soaked in a foot bath for an hour and stood on gravel for four hours until the hooves were dry, there are no shortcuts.”
Post diagnosis in 2016, foot structure has become a key trait in ram selection for Mr Burge and he has begun selecting for an open hoof to reduce sweat and bacteria production.