Agribusiness

Are we at long last getting to grips with the bTB challenge?

While the political stalemate has dominated most discussion around progress in Northern Ireland over the past year, 2018 marked a genuine attempt by the farming industry to gets to grips with the scourge of Bovine TB (bTB), writes Richard Halleron.

The disease continues to cost Northern Ireland’s beef and dairy industries millions of pounds annually. The common ground within the ongoing debate is that both primary producers and all relevant stakeholder groups want to see the disease eradicated once and for all. However, the fundamental question remains: how do we achieve this without putting the livelihoods of beef producers at risk?

I attended many of the winter meetings hosted by the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) last year. Time after time the issue of bTB came up and, it would be fair to say that farmers expressing a view on the matter were not happy with the direction of travel the debate on the matter was taking at that time.

In this context, it was refreshing to hear the Union’s hierarchy specifically confirming that farmers want to see healthy populations of cattle and badgers co-existing with each other in our countryside.

However, questions surround why it took until 2018 for this view to be expressed in such a clear and unambiguous manner.   

Up to this point the farmer perspective on the need to tackle the bTB problem in badgers could have been perceived as one of ‘cull at all costs, irrespective of the implications for our wildlife populations.’ This was never the case. Farmers are, and always will be, the foremost guardians of our countryside.

However, the reality is that badgers do harbour bTB and, as a result, they act as a key point of spread for the disease within our cattle population. So, it makes sense that the disease must be tackled with equal vigour amongst both animal groups. Simply testing cattle and removing reactor animals makes no sense, as the authorities strive to eradicate the disease completely.

It is also overdue for animal welfare groups to admit that the total eradication of bTB is a good news story for our wildlife. The theory is a simple one: culling all diseased animals will serve to improve the health of Northern Ireland’s badger population as a whole.

So, farmers fully support the policy of getting to grips with bTB. The issue at the heart of the matter is that of balancing the budget required to make it all happen.

As one might well expect, the Union are rigid on the need for farmers to be fully compensated for the value of all reactor cattle removed in the wake of a bTB test. However, it is now evident that the UFU will agree to a farmer-funding mechanism, which will offset the cost of a future badger cull.

Given these latest developments, there is a growing belief that the livestock industry should give serious consideration to the option of prescribing electronic tags for cattle or even the feasibility of having every bovine animal electronically chipped.

All dogs in the UK must be chipped, a process that is carried out by a registered veterinarian shortly after birth. This has been the law for several years and is now universally accepted as the status quo. Moreover, electronic identification is now the norm within the sheep sector. It seems obvious, then, that a move in a similar direction for cattle could be considered.

The number of husbandry-related advantages that such an approach could generate would also be significant. In addition, putting an electronic chip into a beast is the ultimate deterrent against rustling or any other practice associated with the changing of an animal’s identity. The big argument against it is the associated cost. It will be interesting to see how these matters play out over the coming months.

The issue of antimicrobial resistance and the need to reduce the quantities of antibiotics used within production agriculture will gain further prominence in 2019. The good news for the industry is that the pig sector is on track to hit its target in terms of reducing antimicrobial usage. But this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Antimicrobials

Dublin’s Croke Park hosted the 2018 British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) annual conference. One of the most significant themes or the event was the focus placed on the role of antimicrobials within production agriculture.

Tying in with all of this is the need for the industry to come up with voluntary codes of practice, which will see antibiotic usage levels fall dramatically within the next number of years.

However, if the voluntary approach does not work, then it is inevitable that the likes of the EU and the World Trade Organisation will step-in with regulations forcing farmers to cut back on the use of antimicrobials within their production systems.

All the speakers addressing this subject at the BSAS event made the point that change, where antibiotic usage is concerned, will be driven by a fundamental mind shift on the part of farmers.

This will require new thinking, where biosecurity and animal welfare are concerned. It will also entail a paradigm shift when it comes to putting the needs of the animal as the number one priority for all livestock production systems.

Despite all the great advances that have been made in developing IT systems, it seems that farmers are still not doing enough to record and audit the day-to-day management of their farms.

Yes, there are sufficient records kept when it comes to getting producers over the line for a cross compliance inspection or a farm quality assurance assessment. However, it is now widely believed that farmers must now go to the next level in genuinely auditing their businesses. In other words, they must make a benchmarking approach to management of the daily target that is set for their businesses.

Only by having an accurate baseline measure, where antimicrobial usage is concerned, can producers hope to secure genuine reductions in application levels as they look to the future.

For the record, it must also be pointed out that all interest groups support the view that farmers and veterinarians must have continuing access to antibiotics in order to treat genuinely sick animals.

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