As lambing gets underway, antibiotic reduction and particularly the recent withdrawal from the market of Spectam® is once again a hot topic across the farming industry. Overall antibiotic use is relatively low within the sheep sector but there is a very high usage around lambing time, particularly in preventative ways (prophylactic) around neonatal lambs.

Many farms historically have been using oral Spectam® (spectinomycin) for the prevention of watery mouth in every lamb born. The blanket treatment of lambs with antibiotics speeds up the rate of resistance, bringing us closer to E.Coli that we are unable to treat with any antibiotics.

Five years ago SRUC Veterinary Services reviewed the antibiotic sensitivity results for 295 isolates of E. coli from lambs less than 4 weeks of age.

  • 52.5% of isolates were resistant to oxytetracycline
  • 41.2% were resistant to ampicillin
  • 29.8% were resistant to spectinomycin.
  • 25% of isolates were resistant to four or more antibiotics.

If we can try and be more selective with our antibiotic use, we are not only saving money but reducing resistance to the antibiotics that we use.
Below we outline some tips to minimise E. coli infections and watery mouth in the upcoming lambing season:

Nutrition of ewes: Poor ewes = poorer quality colostrum = less protection in lambs.

  • Make use of scanning results and review the ration accordingly.
  • Ensure energy status, particularly in those carrying 3+ lambs.
  • Ensure ewes maintain their target body condition score in the last six weeks of pregnancy – target 3.0–3.5 for lowland and 2.5 for upland ewes
  • Body condition score is a good general guide to sheep nutrition, but pre-lambing bloods give a more accurate view of nutritional state. This helps determine if the ration being supplied in late pregnancy is sufficient.

Colostrum: Via colostrum lambs receive vital antibodies to fight disease and energy for heat regulation and metabolism.

The three Q’s of Colostrum:

  1. Quality: 15% fat and 50g/l IgG. Well fed ewes produce better colostrum. Can be measured using a refractometer. Need a good collection technique as dirty colostrum is of poorer quality. >22 % Brix refractometer = good quality
  2. Quantity: 50ml/kg within first two hours of birth, 200ml/kg within first 24 hours (feed until the belly is full)
  3. Quickly: Colostrum can only be absorbed from the gut for the first 24-36 hours.

Assisting colostrum intake

  • Restrain or sit the ewe on her quarters and gently put the teat into the lambs mouth whilst expressing colostrum from the teat. If the lamb is not sucking, check their temperature as they may be hypothermic
  • Bottle and teat
  • Stomach tube – pass down the left side to avoid trachea and ensure it’s in oesophagus, you should be able to see it being passed or feel it with your fingers
    Part of your protocol may include tubing triplets or lambs from ewes in poorer health with high-quality colostrum.

Hygiene: Reducing the initial bacterial load and challenge.

  • Cleaning and disinfecting sheds before lambing and halfway through
  • Regularly straw up beds and/or emptying and disinfecting pens
  • Dagging or clipping ewes before housing can be helpful, as this decreases faecal contamination around the teats when the lambs begin to suckle.

If you are currently blanket treating all lambs with oral antibiotics, there are a few approaches you can take to start reducing antibiotic usage. Only start treating in the second half of lambing as the bacterial challenge builds. Treat only triplets and lambs born to poor ewes or those in lower body condition.

If lambs become sick, they will need systemic (injectable) antibiotics as oral drenches will not be effective once septicaemia has set in. The use of anti-inflammatory medicines and good oral rehydration therapy can help to support the action of antibiotic therapy and reduce our reliance on antibiotics. Please contact your vet for advice if disease does strike.