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Future of farming and farm veterinary practice

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WITH reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the decoupling of payments for agriculture, farming in the uk is entering uncharted waters. Will this reduction in funding for farming be a step too far for agriculture in this country, or are there opportunities to be had in a more flexible market? And what can farm vets do to make their services attractive to tomorrow's farmers? These issues were considered by three speakers, Mr Owen Brennan, chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission in Northern Ireland, Mr Jonathan Long, livestock editor for Farmers Weekly, and Mr Andrew Biggs, president of the British Cattle Veterinary Association, at a session at this year's bva Congress.

The three speakers at the congress session on ‘farming tomorrow’ — (left) Mr Owen Brennan, (centre) Mr Jonathan Long, and (right) Mr Andrew Biggs — give their insights into farming and its future

Mr Brennan highlighted the cost of producing beef in the uk against the price that was paid for it. He used as an example the top 25 per cent of benchmarking beef farms in Northern Ireland. The cost to produce a kilogram of beef was £1·89; however, this did not include any payment for labour costs (for example, if an annual labour cost of £16,000 was included, the cost increased to £3·00/kg). The average price received for this meat was £1·80/kg. With subsidy payments of around £1·50/kg being lost since 2004, he proposed that ‘the production of beef from the suckler herd, and perhaps beef in its entirety, is completely unsustainable in the current market and production environment’.

Mr Brennan went on to argue that one way to tackle the problem was to address the issue of lower-cost production sources and the lower standards that these products needed to meet if they were produced outside of the eu. He said that if the standards that applied to eu producers ‘represent an appropriate framework for the production of meat, how can our Government justify market access for products that are clearly demonstrated to be produced to a lesser standard?’ Vets, he felt, were in a position to lobby on this issue with their knowledge of animal welfare, medicines controls and traceability.

Mr Long was certain that livestock farming in the uk did have a future. However, change was needed, and he envisaged that farming systems would have to become less input-dependent and less labour-reliant. This would require the right type of animals, and careful breed selection would be increasingly important. For vets the outcome would probably be the loss of emergency and ambulatory work, which was currently the bulk of some practices' farm work. At the same time, good vets could add value to a farm business through improved animal health and, hence, productivity. He told delegates, ‘The future of your business depends on your ability to convince farmers of the value you can add to their business.’

Mr Biggs also thought that the nature of farm veterinary work would change in the future. There would be less emergency work focused on the individual animal and more demand for specialist knowledge and preplanned management work, such as benchmarking and disease surveillance.

He did envisage problems with veterinary supply in low stock density areas, noting that problems had already been encountered in the Scilly Isles and in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

With more specialist demands being placed on farm vets, Mr Biggs questioned whether practices that did only a small amount of farm work would survive as they could find it hard to provide the service their clients wanted. However, with the larger practices he thought there would be ‘an evolution; I suspect not a revolution’ as they expanded to fill gaps, perhaps employing paraprofessionals to do some of the work that have traditionally been done by vets. He said, ‘Farm vets will have to become much more confident in data management, economics and consultancy. You are going to have to be a much more rounded, non-clinician.’

‘Farm vets will have to become much more confident in data management, economics and consultancy. You are going to have to be a much more rounded, non-clinician’

In the discussion that followed the presentations, Mr Paul Roger from the Sheep Veterinary Society asked about the promotion of farm health planning and uptake of farm health plans. Mr Biggs pointed out there was a big difference between health plans and active health planning. Health plans should not be seen as just bits of paper, as these did ‘not make a lot of difference to health’. Proper health planning was much more proactive and useful, and was the best way to work with farm clients.

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