Jack Smellie shares her health plan for her smallholding in North Devon

After running a one-acre smallholding for seven years, moving to 10 acres (described in the Spring edition of CS), gave us many new opportunities, most of them seriously exciting, some challenging and the odd one or two actually quite scary. In this latter ‘scary’ bracket we included ‘finding a good vet’ and then working with them to produce a viable and successful health plan for what was to become a substantial increase in both numbers and types of stock (explored in June and July CS).

Peter Siviter and Caroline Robinson wrote an excellent feature in the April edition of CS about the benefits of making a health plan for your livestock. We read it with trepidation, hoping not to find out that we had missed crucial points and actions. Luckily, our new vet turned out to be rather good (Rachel Forster from Market Vets in South Molton, Devon) and so, with her help, this article is about sharing the health plan we devised, together with examining in detail how it has worked for us during our first year. We will be directly cross-referencing back to Pete and Caroline’s article and sharing what we have had to change/amend based on the actual experiences we have had.

The smallholder and the vet

The first point to make about being a smallholder is that, by the very nature of the fact we are ‘small’, we don’t (hopefully) get to experience a huge range of livestock health issues. Take for example, our sheep-keeping. For seven years we owned just two sheep, we had one case of flystrike (due to a botched surgical castration), one backwards birth (a first lambing), a case of pasteurellosis and a few incidences of intestinal worms, and that was it. In just one year of owning 10, we have had several cases of lameness, a foot abscess, a recurring front leg sprain, a stillborn lamb (and subsequent fostering), a case of nematodirus, cases of roundworms, some unidentified lumps and a knocked horn. The relationship is obvious: more stock and more land will almost undoubtedly lead to more issues. We are still however, very small. Pete and Caroline’s article stated very clearly that a health plan must begin with us, the smallholder (what is the purpose of our holding and what are we hoping to achieve?). This (as they also stated) has to go hand in hand with working with your vet from the very beginning, because they will know all the things that the smallholder doesn’t know and cannot be expected to know. In addition, they will know: when advice and practices change; be up-to-date with medicines and how to use them; and, importantly, their advice will be based on what is best for the animal, not for you, although in the words of Rachel: ‘We try to make things practical for you too – but we cannot compromise our advice – if we advise best practice then hopefully any modifications you make will not stray too far from the requirements!’

The Relaxed smallholding: purpose and aims

Our main aims on our smallholding are simple: to raise and enjoy happy, healthy stock; to eat some and sell the rest; to attempt to break even-ish financially (eventually) and, as much as we can, to share our experiences with others. We aren’t fans of giving medicines unless we have to, we ‘are’ sentimental about our animals but do have a cut-off point; we prefer to understock rather than overstock, and we are happiest doing a little bit of lots of things in order to be as self sustaining as we can be.

With regards to the benefits of having a health plan, it is about being proactive, rather than reactive. We also rather liked Caroline’s phrase: ‘Health planning is always likely to benefit welfare and decrease stress (in both animals and humans).’ That rather sums up our whole philosophy as to how we run our smallholding. It also answers the question we pose on our own website as to what makes a successful smallholding? The answer: one you enjoy AND where animal welfare standards are the highest possible. And those two are EQUALLY important.

The ‘Farm Walk’

We had the perfect start with Rachel, our vet, because she came out in our second week and did a ‘farm walk’ with us. If your vets don’t offer this as standard, ask them to do it anyway – it is invaluable because simply by seeing our smallholding, the animals we had and hearing about our plans, Rachel was immediately able to see what kinds of issues we might have and what advice to give us from the start. In addition, she was able to pull us up on any ‘not so good’ ideas we may have been considering as well as help us prioritise the jobs that needed doing. Being in situ meant we could discuss details such as barn ventilation, where best to site a crush, assess our grazing and land type. A huge part of our health plan is managing all the different species we have, another point clearly identified in Caroline’s advice. We keep: sheep, meat and diary goats, alpacas, cows, pigs (weaners only), chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese! We aren’t overstocked and aim to keep understocked, but juggling all their different needs and behaviours is a challenge.

The Relaxed Health Plan

After our walk and talk, we then wrote up the key points that were to determine how we were to manage the smallholding to maximise good animal health. Subsequent vet visits and the experience of seeing how the land coped with our stock as well as how our first breeding season went, naturally (and quite rightly) meant ongoing additions and modifications. The following list thus built up over several months:

Grazing/Land Management

u Prioritise plan to split 6-acre field in two, thus giving us three fields so we can rotate and rest, in addition to use strip grazing for the cows;

u Run mixed grazing groups (no choice with numbers of species we have), accepting issues this may bring but keeping numbers low in order to minimise these issues. Ensure we rotate cows as much as sheep and goats so each can ‘clean up’ pasture (part of our parasitic control as cows are not affected by the same intestinal worms as sheep and goats and vice versa);

u To protect gateways and field shelter entrances using woodchip or similar to help avoid too many lameness issues due to wet ground and mud;

u Accept we may have to deal with docks and nettles non-organically (six goats really cannot keep up) but to definitely deal with them, as a spread is not acceptable;

u Use natural spring in bottom field to fill an automatic water trough so stock NOT drinking direct from ground but to also put in a land drain for excess in order to decrease risk of liver fluke and coccidiosis in particular;

u To plant more hedging to provide sun, wind and rain barriers for all stock.


u Rigorously run Faecal Egg Counts (FECs) at key times and remain aware that we have three species who share the same worm families (sheep, goats and alpacas). Key times being: just before lambing/kidding; turn out, when lambs/kids etc 6-ish weeks old (i.e. have begun grazing); midsummer; early autumn/tupping. (Another note from Rachel: ‘The required frequency of FEC monitoring varies widely from premises to premises and depends upon management strategy, availability of safe pasture, the weather, stocking rates, anthelmintic resistance status etc…,’ so, discussion with your vet is crucial)

u Due to nature of wet land (we live in the South West and have a natural spring) always test for fluke each year (autumn);

u Be aware of Nematodirus risk (keep eye on forecasts), also monitor FECS ref Parasitic Gastroenteritis (PGE) and coccidiosis and run tests, accept this will be yearly, if not twice yearly (again due to wet ground…);

u Be aware of risk of external parasites, ‘consider’ preventative/management measures such as: garlic licks etc; shearing early; controlling parasites to prevent faecal soiling; managing foot rot/ dagging/crutching if shearing early is not an option, and also rely on frequent observations (including if flies favour particular fields) and examinations alongside weather monitoring.


u Prioritise plans to build field shelters as barn not big enough to house all stock at once;

u Designate one field shelter and a bit of land as a ‘Collecting Area’ for the quarantining of new stock (this subsequently doubled up as winter housing for the cows).

Biosecurity/animal health

u Continue with vaccination programmes for sheep, goats and alpacas against clostridial disease;

u Not, at this time, to pursue CAE, CLA etc accreditation schemes as the cost of creating 3m disease buffer zone round perimeter of land is prohibitive plus, in keeping sheep AND goats, the year-on-year cost of testing is also not viable BUT to consider individual testing when live animals leave the smallholding (due to sales) and to aim to buy in high health status stock where practicable;

u To continue practice of daily mucking-out in barn/shelters, to carefully consider location of compost heaps for removal of spent bedding;

u Have foot dips available for visitors.

Routine health/feeding

u To deal with any lameness in sheep on the same day where possible in order to avoid spreading bacteria and allowing scald to develop into full blown foot rot (we don’t follow the Five-Point-Plan in that we don’t vaccinate);

u Check goats’ feet every 5-6 weeks, trim only where necessary;

u Keep an eye on sheep back ends and dag as required to help avoid flystrike;

u Check animal poo areas daily for any changes away from normal consistency;

u On morning and evening checks, look out for any animals not behaving normally, are away from group, not coming up to feed etc;

u Ensure stock can only access feed for their species, be aware of issues such as copper content in feed for sheep;

u Using body condition scoring at key times such as tupping etc to ensure animals in best health for breeding etc;

u Be aware of key periods in year where some health issues are more likely, e.g. magnesium deficiency in cows at turn out, twin lamb disease in later end of sheep pregnancies, scouring in very young lambs and again at start of grazing…

Stocking levels

u To aim for a stability in livestock numbers and so reduce on movements with their potential to bring in disease, exceptions may include male animals for mating each year;

u Use livestock units as best-fit guide for how much stock to put on our ten acres, aim for understocking and taking minimum numbers through the winter.

Vigilance and Observation

Of course, a health plan is only as good as the vigilance that we, the smallholder, applies, and even then things will still go wrong and animals will die. It’s a terrible cliché, but in smallholding/farming, we really have to learn and move on. Mostly, we don’t have the time not to; the demands of the stock still left don’t allow it (which is a good thing).

We have been continuing to sort our watering systems in order not to have to rely on hose pipes so much but when we are standing in a field filling up a trough, that is the perfect time to be watching our stock and checking all is as it should be. To us, that is never time wasted and it is actually a good thing to be forced to stand still like that, rather than be rushing around feeding, mucking out, topping up hay, fixing fences etc.

Vigilance and observation surely go hand in hand, particularly when, as we all know, most animals try to mask any illness or injury they have and sometimes you really do have to get up close and personal to see what is going on.

In the second part of this feature. we will be looking at what medications need to be a part of your health plan, who should administer them, the importance of correct dosing and even with the availability of broad-based antibiotics, how there is always the need for a ‘diagnosis’ (referencing that ‘decision tree) Caroline spoke of in the spring article. We will also discuss the importance of knowing what is ‘normal’ for your animals and how it is a good idea to have a key fact sheet detailing average temperatures, respiratory rates, normal birthing timings etc. We will also look back on our first year and the adaptations we have made to our plan and why. Finally, as well as more crucial words of wisdom from the vets, we will have further health plan top tips from other smallholders.

Read Jack Smellie’s daily blog at www.relaxedathome.org.uk where you can also find livestock for sale and details of the ‘Relaxed’ smallholding courses.

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