High profile disease outbreaks such as BSE, foot-and-mouth and most recently bovine TB, have put the health of British livestock under the microscope and damaged consumer confidence.
And, in an emerging EU and competitive trade market, the UK can ill afford to risk the reputation of its key commodities.
As the farming community works to tackle the numerous threats to animal well-being, the tide will eventually turn as a result of innovative livestock surveillance technology – Techno-Vets.
One of ADAS’ Blue Sky 35 predictions for the future of farming and the environment in 35 years’ time, the Techno-Vet concept is a way of managing livestock to allow for early disease detection.
Early detection through surveillance is critical and could make the difference between one sick animal and a threat to an entire herd or flock.
This is of particular importance for farmers with large estates or those who graze stock in mountainous and upland areas, where animals may be widely dispersed.
In this futuristic system, each animal would be tagged with an electronic detection device, radio transmitter, or similar, connecting them to an intelligent remote satellite tracking system, similar to a spy satellite.
This would feed back a photographic message to a central regional computer, which would visually display the mobility and grazing patterns of the herd or flock on a 24-hour basis.
Disease onset is intrinsically linked to mobility patterns, as animals that are sick are likely to move more slowly, change their grazing regime and respond to environmental changes and stress less effectively than their healthy peers.
Data would be monitored and interpreted by specialist surveillance managers – trained in animal husbandry and advised by vets – so any changes in livestock movement, no matter how small, could be instantly picked up and responded to.
This process would revolutionise the speed of detection, so that abnormalities that may have taken weeks or even months to detect previously, could be picked up in seconds.
But this technology would not replace the work of traditional vet staff.
On the contrary, it will complement their work and even empower them.
While Techno-Vets would be responsible for the surveillance of animals, vets would be responsible for dispensing the relevant clinical advice and diagnostic services where they are needed most.
Currently, the time and resource constraints faced by vets do not always allow them the freedom to carry out farm visits as often as farmers would like.
Even when they do visit, it may take hours to travel to farms in remote areas.
The time saved on detection could be channelled into the more clinical parts of their job, so improving their effectiveness.
The technology could be used to track and monitor a wide range of roaming livestock, from cattle and sheep to poultry and even deer on gaming estates.
A further benefit is that it could locate animals that have gone astray and even detect the presence of predators such as foxes.
As it develops, the technology could be programmed to pinpoint individual animals that are in labour or distress and require urgent attention.
The concept of the Techno-Vet is a real possibility, and ADAS is already researching the effectiveness of electronic identification of sheep, a technology that could be an intrinsic component of the Techno-Vet.
At present, DEFRA provides funding for a range of animal health surveillance programmes and, considering the risk of contagion on an international scale, it is possible such technology could come within the scope of government strategy on animal health and welfare in future
Andrew Walker is an ADAS animal health and welfare expert.