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Proving your worth to farmers
  1. Suzanne Jarvis

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Another week, and we are still unclear on Brexit and the direction it will take.

This leaves farming, like so many industries, waiting to see what the impact will be. With the loss of EU subsidies and pressure from third countries to potentially accept trade deals that favour lower animal welfare standards, farming is certainly going to be affected in a variety of ways.

So what can the UK farming industry do to protect itself for whatever lies ahead?

One opportunity is to produce more sustainable food. There are many definitions of what ‘sustainable’ means, but the UN definition is that it has to be economically viable, protect the environment and be socially acceptable.

The demand is there – the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) predicts global demand for animal protein to increase by 70 per cent by 2050.

An area that ticks all three of these sustainability boxes is to make livestock farming more productive. And this is an area where vets can very much make a contribution when working with their farm clients.

Healthier animals are more productive, and there are good gains to be made in this area. Another OIE statistic estimates that globally about a 20 per cent loss in production occurs due to disease in animals.

When investigated, the economic case soon stacks up. But often the right key performance indicator is not being benchmarked, making it difficult to make a case and link health to productivity on farm.

Without these data farmers might consider that disease prevention can add costs, as, for example, they look at the cost per cow increasing with more vaccination, rather than tracking the cost per litre of milk, which decreases.

There is evidence of the impact of disease. In a report on sustainable food and healthy livestock, published this week by MSD Animal Health, various diseases of production animals are listed and an estimation of their economic costs are included. For example, bovine viral diarrhoea, a disease that is caused by a single virus and where there is an efficacious vaccine, currently costs UK farming approximately £160 million a year, that’s £46.50 per cow.

An example where benchmarking is working and could provide a template for future success is the Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance Targets Task Force on the use of antimicrobials in farming. This has produced clear data on which to move on to reduce antimicrobial use. It is a great example of vets and farmers working together, gives a consistent approach, and is not muddied by lots of different initiatives.

It also gives a good example of the environmental benefit from sustainable farming.

The societal acceptability aspects also work in favour of those farmers producing quality food with good animal health and welfare.

Consumers have their own economic, environmental and social pressures and levels. But at a fundamental level animal welfare is important to them. A public opinion survey conducted in 2015 by Eurobarometer found 90 per cent of those surveyed believed animal welfare should be protected.

Although the vet-farmer relationship is often good, there is room for improvement. Vets are the second most likely group a farmer will come to for advice after their immediate community – other farmers, family and neighbours. But often this is more likely when they have a specific problem on farm rather than for preventive health or animal welfare advice.

Vets need to prove they are worth the spend

Vets need to prove they are worth the spend, and for some sectors, such as sheep farming, where the margins are currently low, this can be even more challenging.

The solutions to making livestock farming more sustainable are all areas vets can help their farm clients with, be it vaccination, promoting high biosecurity and husbandry standards, nutritional advice or breeding for disease resistance. The challenge is getting them to use your expertise.

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