No kidding: small ruminants are coming on big

Ontario’s veterinary community is responding to the rise in goat and sheep production with new education and research initiatives.

Jeff Wichtel, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), says since September, his school’s curriculum has expanded teaching to include more information on small ruminants, and is conducting several new research projects to build up health data on the sector.

“We’re working hard to keep up with the dairy goat industry’s expansion,” he says.  “Many new producers are coming on stream, and they don’t always have experience working with veterinarians. At the same time, most veterinarians don’t have a great deal of experience working with small ruminants. But now, expertise is increasing with the sector’s growth. Our students are showing interest in small ruminants, and we’re making provisions in our teaching and research programs.”

In 2016, OVC graduate student Jeanette Cooper started working with a team from the college, the Animal Health Laboratory and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) on a unique knowledge mobilization research project called “Distance Support for On-Farm Investigation of Small Ruminant Adult Mortalities.”

The project is designed to increase the surveillance of infectious, emerging, zoonotic or other production-limiting diseases of adult sheep and goats on Ontario farms. A distance-support system has been developed for online information transfer of on-farm mortalities.

Small ruminant veterinary research project team members: (from left) Jeanette Cooper, Jocelyn Jansen, Maria Spinato, Andria Jones-Bitton and Paula Menzies.
Photo by Michael Deane, AHL.

“We think technology can be used to increase the utility of on-farm postmortems,” says project leader Dr. Maria Spinato, veterinary pathologist at the Animal Health Laboratory.

The project addresses the unexplained deaths of mature small ruminants in large commercial herds that have befuddled the sector.

The average on-farm mortality rate for Ontario sheep and goats is five percent, representing about 10,000 animals annually.

Recently, one producer reported the sudden loss of six high-quality milking does in his herd, each worth about $350, dying unexpectedly of an unknown cause. Postmortem examination and laboratory testing confirmed the cause of the outbreak to be enterotoxemia, due to Clostridium perfringens type D infection. Similar cases have likewise been reported throughout the province.

However, there is a dearth of information about the potential causes of sudden deaths, or other diseases causing production losses due to emaciation, or wasting.

Several reasons exist for the information void.

First, large-scale sheep and goat commercial production is in its infancy in Ontario, and dead adult animals are rarely submitted to a diagnostic laboratory for analysis.

And many established veterinarians are unfamiliar with how to properly perform a postmortem on a sheep or goat.

As well, the relatively small size of the sector means veterinarians are seldom called out to farms to diagnose the cause of a sheep or goat’s death.

Now though, the sector is growing. The distance support program is responding to that change.

The study team includes researchers from the college, an OMAFRA veterinarian, and pathologists at the Animal Health Laboratory. It’s working to assist and fund livestock veterinarians from afar in performing better on-farm postmortems on sheep and goats, through until next August.

Samples from these postmortems — likely about 150 in total, by the project’s end — are being submitted to the Animal Health Laboratory at the University of Guelph for a broad list of laboratory tests that are targeted to diagnosing diseases affecting adult sheep and goats.

The online support, which features a secure website only for veterinary practitioners, explicitly explains how they should perform the postmortems, and what tissue samples to collect. Spinato estimates each postmortem should take less than 30 minutes.

Participating veterinarians are being paid $175 per postmortem, and the Animal Health Laboratory will receive $400 to cover the testing costs for each animal.

There is no charge to producers participating in the distance support project.

“We’re hoping this project will build relationships between small ruminant producers and veterinarians,” says Spinato.

Others involved in this project include professors. Andria Jones-Bitton and Paula Menzies from OVC and Jocelyn Jansen, small ruminant specialist with OMAFRA.

The project is funded by the Agri-Food and Rural Link KTT Funding Program, part of the OMAFRA-U of G partnership.

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