“Sick sheep seldom survive” sounds like a tongue-twister. But managing flocks threatened by parasites is no parlour game for Ontario producers of sheep and goats. Helping farmers keep food animals healthy and promoting sustainable ways to combat parasitic diseases are the goals of a new veterinary extension program co-organized by Prof. Paula Menzies, Population Medicine.

Under the outreach program launched this past winter, she and other experts from on and off campus have taken a parasite management message to sheep- and goat-producing regions of rural Ontario. During daylong workshops, the team has spoken to a total of about 150 producers and veterinarians in Floradale, Napanee and New Liskeard.

“It’s really important that we work with both veterinarians and producers to educate them regarding controlling these important disease agents,” says Menzies, who co-ordinates small ruminant research and belongs to a ruminant health management group on campus.

The sessions focus on managing infection from gastrointestinal (GI) roundworms that can cause anemia, diarrhea, weight loss and even death in sheep flocks and goat herds. The goal is to help farmers stem production losses and reduce prevention and treatment costs.

The outreach sessions stress management ideas that also mesh with organic farming practices, including managing pasture contamination, monitoring for parasites and selective use of deworming remedies to prevent worms from developing resistance to treatment.

Menzies says research shows parasites on some Ontario sheep farms are resistant to dewormers. “We need to give veterinarians and producers the tools to control gastrointestinal parasites so that they do not harm the livestock and yet minimize the need to use drugs.”

Besides contributing to the province’s agricultural economy, she says, sheep and goat production is integral to the sustainability of the rural agricultural community. Traditionally, these animals provide wool, meat and milk on the farm. Although not a major livestock sector in Canada, sheep and goat farms are increasing in Ontario in number as well as in products (lamb, cheeses from goat and sheep milk, specialty fibres).

“We only need to look at the changing ethnic mix immigrating to Ontario,” says Menzies. “A lot of people are coming from countries where it’s more common to eat lamb or drink goat’s milk than to eat beef or drink cow’s milk.”

Menzies works with pathobiology professor Andrew Peregrine; PhD student Laura Falzon, Population Medicine; and Jocelyn Jansen and Anita O’Brien, small-ruminant specialists with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Also on the team are commodity groups and industry partners. The program is funded by the Canadian Agricultural Adaptation Program run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

The group plans to survey producers and veterinarians to see how the outreach program has improved parasite control. “Training is one thing; uptake is another,” says Menzies.

More effective control measures are especially important for sheep. Referring to that tongue-twisting mantra about diseased animals, she says: “Sheep work hard not to let you know they are sick, so it’s our job to watch them closely. Hiding how sick they are is part of their survival technique: don’t let the predators know you are weak.”

She adds: “The value of an individual animal doesn’t often merit a lot of individual treatment. More important is to keep the entire flock healthy. Can we stop the group from getting sick?”

Even goats are more vulnerable than suggested by myths of cast-iron stomachs. Yes, the creatures are intensely personable and curious, but they don’t actually eat everything in sight. Besides being picky eaters, they differ from sheep and require extra protection from parasitic diseases.

Along with three other faculty members and OVC’s staff veterinarian, Menzies belongs to U of G’s Ruminant Field Service. That practice tends cows, sheep and goats on area farms; DVM students accompany practitioners during their final-year curriculum.

The outreach program for sheep and goat producers stems from a three-year research project headed by Peregrine, Menzies and population medicine professor Andria Jones on control of GI parasites in sheep; they’ve written a parasite control handbook.

The Guelph group belongs to the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada (OACC), formed in 2001 to support organic farmers. OACC also includes other researchers at Guelph – and at U of G’s Alfred and Kemptville campuses – who study other aspects of organic production.