Fighting Tropical Worms in the Cold North
From sheep! November/December 2016 — Subscribe for More Great Stories!
By Alan Harmon – The barn was quiet last spring at Next Step Farm in Canada’s remote Northern Ontario region: No anxious calls from newborn lambs looking for their next meal. No answering reassurances from their mothers.
“I miss those calls,” owner Clint Fasciano says sadly, looking at the building as he walks by at his farm in Porcupine, a few miles outside Timmins, a gritty little city 440 miles north of Toronto.
“My father-in-law built a little bedroom in the barn,” he says. “It was used for sleeping during lambing, to be close to the pregnant ewes. It was one of the things that was passed down, part of our life.
“This is the first year we have no lambs,” he says.
“It was a quiet spring.”
After buying the 38-acre farm from his father-in-law, Joe Esposito, in 2010, Fasciano and his wife Antonella, built up the small flock of sheep to 180 head.
He developed a thriving business, selling cooked lamb burgers at the Urban Park Farmer’s Market in Timmins and marketing lamb cuts to area restaurants.
But now the flock is gone, eliminated by microscopic worms that in this area of Ontario are immune to all authorized treatments. And it’s not only Fasciano: Sheep producers throughout the remote Canadian region are all under similar pressures.
Dry Lot Sheep Resist Worms
Just 120 miles to the south at Belle Vallee, just outside New Liskeard, veteran sheep man Tom Goddard’s 240-acre farm is ground zero for the wormer-resistant sheep worm problem.
His was the first farm in Canada to be identified by researchers as having sheep worms resistant to all treatments.
“It was difficult to persuade them there was a problem,” he says. “I had Canadian Arcotts when resistance hit. Shortly after, I introduced Ile de France and eventually everything became straight Ile de France.”
In 2007, he buried 134 sheep and lambs, mostly due to worms.
“Last year, I buried row upon row of worm-infested lambs and sheep,” Goddard says.
“I was determined to sell the whole flock. It was a decision that was on my mind for the last few years. I did sell most everything except for a remnant few.
“My eager, would-be-farmer grandsons are the biggest reason the sheep are still here.”
Instead of ridding them all, Goddard tried a new tack, housing 85 ewes with their lambs. Through August, he hadn’t had a single death from parasites.
“The sheep aren’t going to touch a blade of grass,” he said.
Worms in the Bandwagon
Fasciano, born in Timmins and raised on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, first got into farming as a supervisor at the Mountain of Mercy Mission farm in Honeydew, Calif., before returning home to work for Esposito.
“My father-in-law always had sheep to some degree,” he says, “He did mostly beef for many years, but he always had some sheep and goats, numbering in the low 20s.”
Fasciano says his 180 sheep were a bit of everything, no specific breed. The 50 goats were Boer and Saanan cross for a meat and milk crop.
“We started noticing problems a year or two before I bought this farm, when I was still working for my father-in-law,” he says. “He was very meticulous about what animals he brought onto the property. Everybody was using whatever (wormer) was working that year. It wasn’t the same treatment year after year.”
With the purchase of the farm, the gastrointestinal nematode parasite worm problem belonged to Fasciano.
“We brought a ram, so I could breed more resistance using Icelandics and Dorpers and other breeds that we heard were more resistant to the problems with parasites,” he says.
Looking back, he sees the origins of the serious worm problems beginning when the sheep sector boomed about eight years ago: “The demand and price of sheep grew to a point where a lot of beef farmers phased out and went to sheep,” he says. “I’m talking in the hundreds of farmers, within a few years. People saw the economic numbers and said they wanted in.
“They got in, realized how hard it was to do sheep in the north and within two or three years, every one of them got out. We thought we’d benefit from that: We bought a lot of small farms out and they went back to doing beef. We used to pick up 10 or 20 head here and there.”
But with those sheep came a flood of worms.
Andrew Peregrine, of the Ontario Veterinary College Dept. of Pathobiology at the University of Guelph told sheep! the very first anthelmintic resistance described in Canada was on Goddard’s farm in 2007.
“We demonstrated resistance to both ivermectin and albendazole in Haemonchus (“Barber Pole” worm) on the farm, using a Fecal Egg Count Reduction Test (FECRT),” he said.
The test measures the reduction in parasite eggs per fecal unit after the infected sheep are treated with a specific wormer.
The research by Peregrine and his colleagues saw 47 flocks enrolled in the study, which monitored their level of parasitism monthly throughout a grazing season by analyzing owner-acquired fecal samples from 15 grazing lambs per flock.
Forty-two of the farms reached the gastrointestinal nematode fecal egg count threshold of 200 eggs per gram. Among these farms, 39 drenched their sheep with ivermectin: Thirty-four had drench failure.
A FECRT was performed on 29 of the 34 farms. Resistance to ivermectin was found on 28, to fenbendazole on 19, and to levamisole on one.
Haemonchus was the most commonly cultured parasite from post-treatment fecal samples.
“Subsequently, we carried out a study on sheep farms across southern Ontario and found widespread resistance to both ivermectin and fenbendazole in Haemonchus using the FECRT,” Peregrine says.
“Anecdotally, we are aware of a number of farms in northern Ontario that have been struggling with this issue. Until very recently the only anthelmintic approved for use in sheep in Canada was ivermectin. In addition, fenbendazole and albendazole were commonly used, off label.
“However, in the last few months closantel—sold as Flukiver by Elanco Animal Health—has been approved for use in sheep and has been shown to be highly effective against Haemonchus populations resistant to both ivermectin and fenbendazole.
“In addition, derquantel/abamectin (Startect, sold by Zoetis) should soon be available in Canada for use in sheep.”
But in 2013 nothing seemed to be working. Fasciano says that one by one, the four available treatments became ineffective.
In one season the worms killed 80 of his ewes and lambs.
“Not even the eight-month winter, with mountains of snow and below zero temperatures, kills off the worms or their eggs,” he says.
“We used to almost bank on the fact the parasites would all die off at 50° below. At least the sheep would get better in the winters. Not anymore: With winter, you have eight months with them not on grass, but it got worse and worse.
“I fought it for almost two years,” Fasciano says, “but the worms are strains resistant to the medication available here.”
More effective worm treatments are available in the United Kingdom, but they’re not yet accepted in Canada.
“There were restrictions on the medications that can be used to the point where sheep farming isn’t viable here.”
Still, Fasciano battled on.
“I brought in more sheep. That brought in more problems: Of those 180, I had about 12 that seemed to be fairly worm-resistant. They were dramatically stronger than the rest.
“But at the end, we were too heartbroken from watching all those poor lambs die. It wasn’t the parasites killing them; it was the parasites weakening them enough for other things to happen.
“If they got into standing water—say, something that would normally not do a lot of damage—it would wipe out a large group of them.”
The worms created a vicious cycle, with sudden death and outbreaks of diarrhea in young lambs as they grazed pastures contaminated by large numbers of larvae hatched from eggs deposited by lambs during the previous grazing season.
Good Money in Burgers
By the spring of 2016, the sheep were gone and the meat trade he had built was gone with them.
“It was a huge hit,” Fasciano says.
At the farmers’ market in Timmins, his lamb burgers, made with product from his farm, had been selling out every week. Before he even finished setting up at the one-day market each week, there’d already be a lineup of customers.
“We had built a huge market and the demand always outweighed the supply,” he remembers.
No matter how many lamb burgers he took to the market, he could barely keep up. He had a package deal: Lamb burger with bun, a bag of potato chips and soda.
At each Thursday’s market, he was selling 50 to 70 burgers.
“People would come back for seconds,” Fasciano says. “Some people would buy six and take them home for their family. After two hours, I would often sell out!”
He offered to sell would-be buyers ground lamb, but they wanted the recipe for the patties as well. There was no way he would reveal that; they were made with his own secret ingredients.
Now he’s buying lamb from Mennonite farmers in New Liskeard, Ont., three hours away.
“We still call it local, because it is northern Ontario, but it’s not from my farm,” Fasciano says.
The farmers market was not his only hit. “We were selling our own farm’s lamb in local stores. Local restaurants were starting to enquire,” he says. “It was really growing. There was lamb in every restaurant. A few years ago that wasn’t the case. It’s sad to see the growing demand and not be able to meet it.”
Now cattle and pigs have taken over Fasciano’s farm. “We built our brand around the lamb,” he says. “It’s a sad transition.”
Medicating Wintering Flocks Builds Wormer Resistance
The Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency was unable to say just how many people were in Fasciano’s situation. “While worms are something all producers across the province struggle with,” general manager Jennifer MacTavish tells sheep! “putting a number to the producers who exit the industry solely because of worm load is difficult.”
There’s a range of federal agricultural business risk programs for Canadian farmers and the Ontario government has its own program. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture media relations strategist Bianca Jamieson says the programs help farmers mitigate the risks that may be beyond their control. “The Business Risk Management programs work together by providing protection for different types of losses, including those resulting from adverse production conditions,” Jamieson says. “There’s no Agri-Insurance program directed specifically toward parasites in sheep as an insured peril. However, ministry staff is working with representatives of the sheep industry to explore the potential of developing an insurance program targeted toward the specific needs of the sheep industry.”
Ontario Veterinary College small ruminant specialist Paula Menzies says wormer immunity in Haemonchus is also in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada, and Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the west.
“I frequently visit those provinces to discuss parasite control and methods to keep anthelmintics effective,” she says. “Producers’ stories are very compelling, and we’re working hard to provide more sustainable solutions.”
“Our resistance issue is largely due to our more severe winters,” she says. “Haemonchus larvae don’t overwinter on pasture in our northern climes, so our pastures are ‘clean’ of that parasite in the spring before turn-out. The only Haemonchus that survive on a farm are in the housed sheep.
“If we combine that with treatment of the whole flock when housed in the winter, then the only Haemonchus on that farm that survive are those that are resistant to that (medication).”
These few parasites then go on to contaminate our clean pastures with resistant larvae.
“Haemonchus, in our northern climate, and perhaps more so as result of our warmer and longer summers… is quite capable of increasing its numbers in animals from almost zero to levels that kill lambs by the first week of August.,” Menzies says.
Down But Not Out
Fasciano’s aptly named Next Step Farms will keep sheep off the property for five years to clear the land of any eggs that could restart a worm cycle. He and his wife Antonella are not giving up.
“We have a long-term goal to rebuild with a smaller, more manageable flock,” he says. “We’ll probably focus a bit more on beef because there is a market,
“We want to see if we can find somebody winning the battle against worms genetically.”
He regularly searches the Internet, on websites from Canada to Australia seeking clues as to how to manage the worms.
One thing Fasciano has learned: When the sheep do return, he needs to have more pasture management.
His farm has 15 to 20 acres up on a hill that he says are great for sheep.
“We always used the same three houses for them, so no matter what fresh pasture they were on, they always came back to the same house.”
That won’t happen next time around.
Says Fasciano: “My vision is to do a little more pasture management, a little more intensive rotational grazing.”