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Texas AM pneumatic delivery cropped.jpg AgriLife photo
AgriLife uses pneumatic guns to help stop the spread of disease among sheep.

Pneumatic technology helps stop disease spread among flocks

Needle-free injection system reduces animal handling and stress when administering vaccinations to sheep and goats.

Researchers at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Service Center in San Angelo, Texas, are working to find innovative ways to use technology to address the diseases, issues and concerns prevalent in the sheep and goat industry, including best methods for vaccination.

Running 200 ewes through the chute and giving them each their annual Clostridium perfringens type C and D and Clostridium tetani booster vaccination in preparation for lambing season is traditionally cumbersome and physically taxing, but by using new technology, the AgriLife team has been able to take most of the stress out of this process.

By utilizing a pneumatic gun to administer vaccines, it took fewer than 20 minutes to vaccinate 200 ewes -- a process that would take several hours with a traditional needle system, AgriLife Research said in an announcement. The needle-free injection system is not only a quick, low-stress way of vaccinating sheep, but it can help curb the spread of diseases that can be devastating to flocks, according to AgriLife sheep specialists.

AgriLife Extension associate Jake Thorne said the pneumatic vaccination gun used on the ewes runs on carbon dioxide and “dispenses the vaccine through the animal’s skin through a tiny hole seven times smaller than what is made by an 18-gauge needle. The gun has adjustable pressure, so it can be altered for use on lambs or adults, as well as for other species.”

AgriLife Research center director Dr. John Walker explained that he had two reasons for getting a pneumatic vaccination gun for the center: “One, I think we ought to use the latest technology here so we can demonstrate it to producers and other people who may be interested in it. The other reason is to prevent disease transmission. Unless you change needles between every animal — which people should do, but they don’t — you have the potential to transmit disease.”

Chronic diseases

“Chronic diseases such as Caseous lymphadenitis (CL) and ovine progressive pneumonia (OPP) have plagued the sheep industry for decades,” AgriLife Extension sheep and goat specialist Dr. Reid Redden said. “These diseases can be spread more rapidly through a flock of sheep or herd of goats if producers don’t change needles between animals.”

“CL is an infection of the lymph nodes, and it can’t be treated once [the sheep] have it,” Thorne said. “OPP is a viral disease that can cause various symptoms, including hardened lungs causing shortness of breath, hardened udders that don’t produce milk and arthritis. You can’t tell just by looking at your ewes that they have either disease. It may take years for the diseases to show its symptoms.”

There are approved vaccines for CL for both sheep and goats, but they are not widely used due to the amount of labor required to vaccinate large flocks. In the past, ranchers have been urged to cull animals that exhibit signs of CL, Redden noted.

“This strategy can reduce flock or herd disease prevalence but won’t eradicate the disease completely,” Redden said. “Other more aggressive recommendations include testing all animals and culling those with positive results. This strategy can be very costly both for testing and culling animals that would otherwise have years of productivity in their future. This technology helps prevent the spread of the disease, so other vaccination and prevention methods are more likely to eliminate the disease.”

CL causes internal and external abscesses. Once the boil ruptures, the bacteria-carrying pus can infect other animals. It can also be transmitted between animals through needles or wounds.

The number of animals affected by CL or OPP varies by region but can be as high as 40% in certain regions of the U.S., Thorne said.

Vaccination safety

The pneumatic gun can help prevent the spread of OPP, CL and other infectious diseases as well as serve as a faster and less labor-intensive means of vaccinating livestock. The downsides, according to Redden, are that the device is limited to certain products based on the viscosity of the drug, and it is cost-prohibitive for smaller operations.

Typically, two people must administer vaccinations to make the operation run as easily and smoothly as possible. Animals must be restrained and a needle injected. The pneumatic gun makes vaccination a task that can be easily handled by a lone individual. In addition to reducing the time and manpower needed to vaccinate, it is over so quickly that it is less stressful for the animals, the announcement said.

AgriLife Research reported that at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service’s Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho, research leader and supervisory scientist Dr. J. Bret Taylor also utilizes pneumatic guns. Taylor and his group have worked with Walker on various research projects and studies to advance the U.S. sheep and lamb industry.

The station has always used a new needle for each animal, since eliminating a vector is one way to stop transferring blood-borne pathogens. They switched to the pneumatic gun to also save time and manpower.

“When you look at the whole aspect of speed, efficiency, convenience and disease prevention, it’s hard to argue against a pneumatic injector,” Taylor said. “You also don’t have to worry about the animal jumping around and breaking a needle off.”

The only notable issue Taylor and his team have experienced with the pneumatic gun is with the vaccine freezing in the gun’s line due to the cooler seasonal climate in Idaho. They remedied the problem by putting the guns inside jackets that are battery heated to keep the vaccine in a liquid state.

With a starting price tag of around $3,000, a pneumatic gun may never be a cost-feasible replacement for syringes for smaller operations with a few head. However, Taylor said the guns are extremely durable and, based on a 2,000-ewe flock, can pay for themselves in about a decade, taking syringe and hourly labor costs into account. When considering ease of use and a drastic reduction in physical labor, Taylor was convinced that the payoff is nearly immediate.

“Needle vaccinating can be very physically taxing work,” Taylor said. “With the gun, even our smallest or least physically strong team member can easily vaccinate a flock.”

The pneumatic gun also eliminates “friendly fire” accidents where people accidentally get stuck by needles, he added.

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station scientists in Idaho published a study on the effectiveness of pneumatic needle vaccines versus traditional needle vaccines on thick-wool sheep. The study showed that they were equally effective, so coat type, therefore, shouldn’t be a deterrent when deciding on a pneumatic system versus traditional needles.

“Pneumatic injection systems are a viable option that allows ranchers to easily vaccinate large groups of animals and drastically reduce the risk of spreading disease. It is realistic that use of vaccinations and the pneumatic system could eradicate long-standing disease from commercial-oriented Texas sheep flocks and goat herds,” Redden said.

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