Opinion

Animal disease: We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg

I am fast coming to the conclusion that Irish farmers are sitting on a mountain of animal disease and health-related challenges.

Most of the time these issues are ticking along in the background, not visible to the naked eye.

But, every now and then, factors kick in to bring these matters to the forefront of farmers’ minds.

For example, if something happens to increase the stress levels encountered by animals in any way, their ability to fend off disease just melts away. And the end result is carnage.

Improving animal health standards represents the next frontier for Irish agriculture.

A case in point is the fact that significant numbers of pigs, in some countries, present with gastric ulcers at the time of slaughter. I picked this nugget of information up, courtesy of my attendance at a recent conference.

It immediately struck me that problems of this nature represent a genuine welfare problem for the pig industry. But, more than that, they will lead to significant reductions in daily growth rates – while also predisposing the affected pigs to a host of disease challenges.

The other reality which livestock farmers will have to accept is that the days of using antibiotics as a convenient get-out-of-jail card when treating sick animals are fast coming to an end.

The real game afoot for the future is that of ensuring that animals do not become ill in the first place.

The aforementioned conference saw Dr. Georgina Crayford, a senior policy advisor with the UK’s National Pig Association, claim that it will take a fundamental mindset change to get farmers weaned off the use of anti-microbials.

She pointed to the need for pig producers to significantly improve hygiene standards while also ensuring that animal stress levels are kept low at all times within their units. She also emphasised the need for disease prevention to be the number one management priority for producers, as they look to the future.

All of this made perfect sense to me. And, no doubt, the same principles hold for all the other livestock sectors in this country.

There is universal recognition to the effect that Irish farmers must become more efficient. I used to think that preparing a farm animal health plan was a cosmetic exercise, required only for the purposes of a quality assurance inspection.

That was then. I now believe that putting preventative health measures in place must be the over-arching principle for every livestock farmer.

Healthy animals really are the key to securing meaningful production gains for the future.