With sheep scab incidences on the rise, the need for effective treatment has never been more important. Alex Heath visits a contractor who has built his own mite killing machinery.
Dipping 300,000 sheep a year requires some serious kit, not available off the shelf. For Neil Fell, owner of Mobile Sheep Dipping, based out of Brancepeth, County Durham, the answer was to design his own way of getting the job done, with inspiration for its design coming from the least likely source.
Now covering the length of breadth of the country, Mr Fell started his contract dipping business in 2014, after the family farm’s fixed dipping tank became unusable necessitating the purchase of a traditional mobile plunge tank. Initially dipping the family’s 1,000 breeding ewes and a few local flocks, the early days saw 2,500 sheep dipped. However, demand soon began to grow, which led Mr Fell to develop his own his hydraulic cage dipping machines.
He says: “Sheep scab is becoming an epidemic within the industry and farms are now realising the benefits of dipping once again. When we started out, farmers would call saying they had itchy sheep and maybe 20 per cent of the time it was scab, the rest was lice. Now, when we get the call, nine out of 10 times it is scab. It used to be a problem running into the winter, but now we are busy all year with cases.”
Controlling the mite is not getting any easier either, he adds.
“Jabbing sheep is a time consuming and stressful job for both people and sheep when weighing each and every sheep, as should be done to ensure they are getting the correct dose. Dipping in organophosphate does away with the need to weigh and provides an instant kill.”
Following what Mr Fell describes as ‘one of those days’, with sheep refusing to flow into his existing tank, he stopped by the local chip shop and, while waiting for his order, he watched the shop keeper plunging the chips into the fryer.
“It was a light bulb moment,” he says. “If chips could be cooked in that way, I thought there was nothing to stop us designing a sheep dipper using the same principles. So I drew up a design and consulted an engineering friend and we started building the first model. It took around five months from inception to the finished machine. I have since nicknamed it the chip and dip machine.”
Since the first machine was built in 2017, Mr Fell has added a second. They are self-propelled, self-contained units carrying all the necessary items for a day’s dipping, depending on the number of flocks that have to be treated.
The base of the units is a rigid HGV.
“The bit that does the job and earns the money is what we add to it, so providing it gets us from A to B without any hassle I am not fussed on the brand of the lorry, as long as it is mechanically sound,” says Mr Fell.
He is currently running an 18-tonne DAF and a 12t MAN, with near identical dipping systems on the back.
Arriving at a premises, sheep are penned up and the lorry is backed up to a smaller holding area. A ramp is lowered that allows the sheep onto the lorry and into the cage. Mr Fell says most of the time, the sheep flow onto the lorry very well, as there is no thrashing and splashing like a normal dip tank.
The number of sheep that can be dipped at once depends on the size and weight of them, coupled to the stage of gestation. He says typically 12 to 14 continental-type ewes and anywhere from 14 to 20 lambs can be dipped at a time. Once the required number of sheep are in the cage, it is lowered into the solution. Sheep are fully submerged for a second, ensuring the head, ears and eyes are covered. They then stand in the solution for about a minute and are fully submerged for a second time, although, he says three or four times are preferable, vital to an effective kill of the scab-causing mite.
Mr Fell says because the sheep’s feet are always in contact with the floor and there is not the normal shock of a plunge tank, they remain calmer and there is no splashing like in normal tanks. This, he suggests, is better for the animal itself and the operator who is not getting covered in chemical all day.
The cage is lowered by a hydraulic ram and pulley system, with a 9.2hp Hatz diesel generator powering a hydraulic pump. The cage can also be powered by tractor hydraulics, should the generator fail, and there is also an electric winch as a third fail safe method of raising the cage. If a total catastrophe occurs, the tank can be drained from the bottom, taking a few seconds to lower it below their heads, says Mr Fell.
Sheep exit the cage and stand on the bed of the lorry for three to five minutes, depending on the length of fleece. The bed slopes back to the dip tank allowing the excess dipping fluid to drain from their fleeces and back into the tank. Once drained, they exit down another ramp at the front of the lorry. Mr Fell says the sheep take three litres out of the dip tank in their fleeces and drain 2.5 litres - the half-litre remaining on the sheep contains the active ingredient, diazinon. Bimeda Gold Fleece is the treatment used by Mr Fell’s business.
The bed of the lorry is also used to transport the clean water to the farm and waste product away, with four IBC’s needed to fill the 4,500-litre tank. Once dipping is complete, the waste liquid is pumped out of the tank and taken back to base, before being sent to a chemical treatment plant for disposal. Each farm visited gets fresh dipping liquid, eliminating the chances of cross infection.
“It is important we are disposing of the waste chemical properly and sending it to a proper treatment plant is the best and most environmentally friendly way,” adds Mr Fell.
Work rates of 300 to 400 sheep per hour are achievable, says Mr Fell, with up to 4,500 sheep able to be dipped in a day.
As the business has expanded and his responsibilities have increased, Mr Fell has promoted one of his employees, Paul Grange to manager. Mr Grange has been involved in the business for three years, while Mr Fell is also training additional employees. Two employees always go on a job to help with sheep flow and conduct the dipping.
In addition, the business is in talks with providing a machine in partnership with Synergy Farm Health to cover the South West region, which will reduce the time spent on the road and provide a more timely service to farmers of the area, says Mr Fell. He is also building another machine to add to the fleet that will be more compact for yards with tight accesses.
“The damage caused by scab cannot be underestimated - it is a horrible disease. Left untreated it is a massive welfare issue that causes pain and suffering for the sheep and hampers their performance,” he says.
“Dipping is the most reliable way of controlling the problem. We as an industry have to do everything we can to rid the country of it, and organophosphates in a system like ours is the most effective way.”