Sheep farmers accused of misleading ram buyers during sheep brucellosis outbreak

A devastating disease that causes abortions, infertility and weak lambs is spreading across Queensland, and sheep producers fear some stud farms are misleading ram buyers about their disease-free status.

The breeders said the welfare of their flock as well as the future supply of wool and lamb had been put at risk by unregistered breeders falsely claiming to have accreditation proving that their animals were not carriers of the disease. ovine brucellosis (OB).

The bacterial infection, which does not affect humans, is found in the semen of rams and can lead to infertility in rams and ewes, abortions in pregnant ewes and lambs struggling to survive.

But many breeders lost faith in the accreditation system when false positive test results from a state government-run lab led to the needless destruction of rams that were not infected in 2015.

Now, with rams selling at record prices and the industry rebuilding its workforce, the reluctance to test and register could threaten its recovery.

Stud standards questioned

Most Queensland stud farms participate in the voluntary Sheep Brucellosis Accreditation Scheme, which routinely tests herds to maintain accreditation.

But the recent outbreak has caused growers to question whether rams sold as free of the infection have been tested.

Will Roberts sits on the board of the Queensland Merino Stud Sheep Breeders Association and runs his merino farm from his property in Morven, Victoria Downs.

He said the outbreak was a huge concern within the local sheepmeat and wool industries, which were still rebuilding after years of drought and wild dog predation.

“There are people who have set up as studs but they’re not all following the right protocols and as a result we’re bringing things like this up,” Roberts said.

“It’s not just in merinos. It’s certainly in British breeds and breeds that are losing and people don’t know what their obligations should be if they become a ram breeder.”

Wool farmer Will Roberts is frustrated with claims from unregistered stallions claiming they are brucellosis free when they are not.(Rural ABC: Maddelin McCosker)

Stud farms do not need to be registered to sell rams as breeding stock, and with some registered rams attracting six-figure sale prices, producers wanting to rebuild quickly could opt for more affordable, non-accredited animals.

With breeders desperate for genetic diversity and numbers, the falsely accredited rams had the potential to infect multiple flocks.

“One of the biggest issues from a producer’s perspective is…breeding is king right now,” Roberts said.

“If an infected ram serves a ewe and a clean ram serves the same ewe, that’s how it gets transmitted.”

Disease likely prevalent in commercial herds

Goondiwindi vet Mike Rival warned the disease was highly contagious and urged the whole industry, not just breeders, to carry out regular testing.

“It’s not endemic, but it’s basically a point fire equivalent,” Dr Rival said.

“It not only spreads from ram to sheep to ram, but also from ram to ram.”

He said poor fencing between neighbors could also widen the spread.

“So it will be the equivalent of a social disease and it could be four neighbors affected by a farmer who has it in his herd,” he said.

A crowd of young lambs in a yard waiting for crutches
Brucellosis can cause infertility in rams, abortions in pregnant ewes and weak lambs.(Rural ABC: Maddelin McCosker)

Dr Rival said infected animals were more likely to be attacked by feral dogs or feral pigs because the disease prolongs lambing time.

“Lambs can outrun predators after a while, but if it’s prolonged lambing there are bigger windows for predators to have an effect,” he said.

But he said the current strategy of isolating and destroying disease-carrying rams was a “waste”.

“You buy a ram expecting five years of labor, but they can become clinically affected and have impaired fertility within six months of purchase,” Dr. Rival said.

Lost faith and lost sheep

Many breeders lost faith in the voluntary accreditation system when in 2015 false positive test results led to the unnecessary destruction of uninfected rams.

An investigation by Biosecurity Queensland found problems with an antigen used in testing.

A photo of several vials of sheep blood which is to be tested for ovine brucellosis
Most sheep farms in Queensland participate in the voluntary Ovine Brucellosis Accreditation Scheme.(ABC Broken Hill: Youssef Saudie)

At the time, the Department of Agriculture confirmed that testing protocols had been changed to ensure repeat testing was carried out on any positive tests.

Ovine brucellosis is not a reportable disease in Queensland, which means producers do not have to report to the state government if an animal tests positive, but they do have an obligation not to spread it.

A spokesperson for Biosecurity Queensland said the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Biosecurity Science Laboratory (BSL), which handled the tests, was accredited by the National Association of Testing Authority (NATA) and had implemented a quality management system.

“BSL participates in series of proficiency tests to ensure high levels of quality assurance of laboratory results,” he said.

“The last round of proficiency testing was conducted in December 2021 with a satisfactory result.”

Dr Rival said he was confident the testing issues in Queensland were resolved, but acknowledged he had also used out-of-state labs to test the results.

He said eradicating OB from a flock was too difficult and instead urged Queensland to be more transparent with the voluntary accreditation scheme, similar to New South Wales.

“It’s published on a website, where stud breeders who are accredited are on a list,” he said.

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