Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

A good scrub will kill farm bacteria


Peadar O Scanaill

'My ram is as lame as a duck," was the complaint down the phone last Monday. "He's supposed to be sweeping the last of the ewes, but he can't walk."

The ram in question had about 20 more ewes to cover over the next two weeks.

He had a growth between the toes of one of his back feet, and the area had become inflamed and infected with all the tupping done to date.

We set about removing the growth under local anaesthetic and applied a dressing that included some copper sulphate and dilute iodine. As the work was continuing, we began to discuss what measures to take before winter sets in.

The houses came under scrutiny and it was immediately acknowledged that a serious clean-out had not occurred this summer. The farm was a mixed enterprise of beef and sheep, and the sheep sheds had become cattle pens as the summer progressed. Without the thorough clean, we run the risk of last year's winter infections remaining to wreak havoc this winter. Three big threats would have a field day in such conditions, namely coccidioses, E-coli and salmonella.

I mention these three because they're all infections that affect both cattle and sheep. There are many others.


To break the cycle of any disease, we must clear, clean and disinfect the area, and allow a reasonable period of rest to dry out the entire place. Most bacteria need some organic matter (dirt and dung) in order to survive. Even before disinfectants are ever thought of, we must get every surface down to its original clean condition. All organic matter must be removed and the whole place given a total scrub.

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Any presence of dung is said to reduce the effectiveness of disinfectants by 90pc. Or in reverse, we get a ten-fold increase in the effectiveness of our disinfectants when we clean the area adequately. Hence the stainless steel surfaces in areas where cleanliness is paramount.

Obviously, our sheds are not stainless steel, but we strive at all times to aim for a clean, dry surface. Back to E-coli and lambing time. Many of us have seen how quickly young lambs can succumb to the scourge of E-coli. We immediately talk of a pump-action antibiotic oral dose to treat it, but this autumn we could work harder to avoid the need for antibiotics by breaking down the E-coli cycle.

On the mixed enterprise farm, the cattle act as a perfect production line to keep the E-coli numbers to a maximum. Therefore, next February when the first of the flock begin to lamb, the E-coli bacteria are alive and well, and fully armed to infect the first lambs.

We'll immediately reach for the medicine and wonder how to reduce the massive losses heading our way. But it will all be in vain because the homework has not been done. Bacteria hate dry surfaces. They also hate sunlight. And they need organic matter to survive.

The only way to prevent lamb losses next spring is to kill off last winter's lingering infections. Wet corners are tackled and fixed. We should tolerate no area of constant dampness. We should get all bedding out and away at the earliest convenience. The gates and pen-dividers should be power- washed and disassembled where possible. Stacking them outside in daylight to dry and be exposed to the ultra-violet rays of the sun is not a bad idea. Not that there's much sunshine left, but every little helps.

Coccidiosis is caused by a protozoan parasite that forms very robust eggs to re-infect the next generation. These eggs are sticky and thick-walled, and can remain infectious for a very long time. Not every disinfectant works to kill them, and specific agents must be used if coccidia are the target. Consult your vet for accurate advice and bear in mind that clinically normal adult animals can continue to excrete new eggs all the time.

The same advice would also apply in the case of salmonella, as they are very similar.

What we must aim for is to reduce the burden of infection when the lamb is most vulnerable. That means reduce the infection at lambing time. Where possible, we should consider making some extra lambing pens that we can occupy as the season progresses. With the best will in the world, and the cleanest pen this winter, a lambing area will slowly become infected as the season rolls on.

Changing to a second, third or subsequent clean area during the season will greatly help to break the cycle.

So finally back to my farm of the mixed enterprise. Empty the shed. Clean out, power wash and scrub all surfaces. Take down any relevant gates and dividers and put them outdoors. Clean and dry them and wait until just before restocking to return them. Choose the correct disinfectant. Provide for a few extra lambing pens. Fix the leaks and dry out any damp spots. And, hopefully, we'll never have to reach for that antibiotic medicine at all next year.

With that, the ram got up and trotted away.

Peadar O Scanaill is a vet in Ashbourne, Co Meath, and a member of Veterinary Ireland. Email: or call 01 457 7976

Indo Farming