Animal health advances will be critical for future of farming

File photo
File photo

Simon More

The beef prices crisis, potential cuts to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)and the impact of the upcoming Mercosur trade deal dominated the farming headlines in 2019.

But the challenge of improving animal health - an issue that is receiving noticeably less debate and comment - is arguably one of the biggest concerns for farmers if they wish to protect their futures amid the intensifying pressure on the sector.

With approximately 85pc of our milk produce and 85pc of our beef exported, the quality of our national food product is critical and animal health is fundamental to this.

Other nations are improving the health status of their animals continually, so standing still in Ireland would in effect be going backwards.

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Much of western continental Europe is already free, or moving towards freedom, from BVD and IBR.

Freedom from these diseases will become increasingly important if Ireland is to have continued access to live export markets - and this is before the Brexit challenge is considered.

There are also widespread national and EU policy changes afoot relating to disease control, eradication programmes, animal movements and antibiotic resistance.

These changes will all require anew approaches on the part of farmers and other industry players.

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From a human health perspective, improved animal health across farming can reduce the need for on-farm antibiotic usage which has a correlation with antibiotic resistance in people.

The climate change crisis - and agriculture's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions - also means system-wide reform of the sector is necessary and inevitable.

Improved animal health will positively contribute to reduced emissions, primarily through improved efficiencies that require less animals per unit of output.

Increased focus on animal health and farm biosecurity is paramount to support the viability of Irish farmers' livelihoods, and also to safeguard the integrity of the food chain and to protect public health.

BVD eradication

The positive news is that there has been notable progress on this front in Ireland in recent years.

In 2019, Ireland's well-advanced national BVD eradication programme resulted in an estimated net saving of €85 million to farmers.

Ongoing improvement in milk quality due to improved mastitis control has also led to substantial economic gains for dairy farmers and milk processors.

In 2017 alone, there were additional returns of €39 million to farmers and €16 million to milk processors in this respect when compared to 2013.

The introduction of the CellCheck programme has led to a substantial reduction in the use of antibiotics to treat dairy cattle.

These developments are as a result of the broader shift nationally, led by Animal Health Ireland, to a science-based partnership between government, industry and service-providers.

To sustain the improvement in animal health in Ireland over the last decade, and to safeguard farming livelihoods across the country, this partnership approach will remain critical.

Simon More is Professor and Director of the UCD Centre for Veterinary Epidemiology and Risk Analysis (CVERA)

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