Reflecting on the success of Ruminant Health & Welfare so far
Looking back can be a distraction and in a world dominated by change – buffeted by the Covid pandemic and the tragic war in Ukraine – focusing on the future makes sense.
After all, we all need to do things better and leave the world in a better place.
However, almost three years on from the development of the Ruminant Health & Welfare (RH&W) four nations group, some of the milestones achieved are perhaps worth reflecting on.
Reaching out to the wider farm and veterinary community to gain their views on the health and welfare challenges they face shouldn’t be forgotten.
The RH&W survey confirmed long-held views underlining the importance of lameness, bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), Johne’s and sheep scab – but it also started to show regional and sectoral differences.
The impact and spread of contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD) came through strongly, while producers’ weighting of fly strike as a major sheep welfare threat and the level of concern over iceberg diseases hadn’t been predicted.
The antithesis of disease and welfare priorities are low prevalence, but high impact diseases.
Tick-borne diseases fall into this category, and they emerged as a survey priority at a regional level, underlining their importance to both farmers in certain localities, and to RH&W.
Unfortunately, climate change and new land management practices are likely to carry the tick threat into new areas.
Meanwhile, mortality of cattle associated with Botulinum toxin, recently reported from Jersey, is a stark reminder of how some less common conditions can be devastating and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Mycoplasma in cattle has also become a mainstream threat often associated with other respiratory pathogens – and it was the subject of a recent advisory reminder lead by expert members of the RH&W steering group.
The recently launched work on the five-year UK Dairy Cattle Welfare Strategy, and the partnership working on rearing dairy bull calves focusing on the value of specific sires, have marked highs for the group.
However, the steering group has met barriers to the adoption of new techniques to reduce pain in significant parts of the UK due to the very different approaches to pain control across the four nations which has been frustrating.
In contrast, different approaches to health planning across the four nations demonstrate how diversity may be a route to smarter, user-friendly, active health planning with new systems being trialled.
RH&W is all about working with farmers and focusing on the health and welfare issues that challenge them.
In big picture terms, it’s about managing the health status of ruminants at a national level and contributing to welfare and efficiency improvements through facilitating collaboration across the four nations .
Those goals align with climate change targets through direct emissions reductions, as well as building a high-health ruminant population to provide a platform for other emissions mitigation interventions including precision nutrition, feed additives and genetics.
The group’s guide – Acting on methane – produced on climate change diseases and reducing methane emissions provides practical baseline information.
Those flock- and herd-based goals mean that RH&W must focus on communication and being a catalyst for change.
Is the future about providing tools, technical support and updating risk indicators generated by surveillance to allow producers to determine and achieve their own goals?
Or do we push producers to adopt worthy techniques through the conditionality of farm assurance and government support systems? A micro-management approach?
Getting the balance right, including the regulatory framework, is crucial.
The approach taken will determine the speed and depth of progress in health and welfare and the buy-in of farmers.
RH&W has accepted the challenge of continuing the work and building on the success of the Sheep Health and Welfare Group (SHAWG) and Cattle Health and Welfare Group (CHAWG).
The progress we have made is very much due to the expertise and commitment of the steering group and our professional team – I have enjoyed being part of the group and its journey.