Guaranteeing a profitable market through improved health status and biosecurity will ensure a cost-effective and sustainable future for the UK livestock industry, according to a Royal Show conference this week.

Entitled Step up on Health – A Prescription for Success, the conference highlighted key areas where more holistic management and biosecurity considerations could influence marketability and efficiency.

With bovine TB costing £90m and the lives of 30,000 cattle in 2005, the emphasis on health and biosecurity status within the industry couldn’t be more prevalent, highlighted Baroness Byford opening the conference.

“Existing disease threats and the risk of new diseases such as West Nile and Blue Tongue looming over farmers, make getting management of biosecurity and health planning right crucial to a profitable future,” Lady Byford added.

Underlining the benefits of improving biosecurity, farmer Sarah Whiting explained the precautions taken on Fursden Farm, Cornwall. She and her husband run 190ha (470 acres) and, using the Blade Farming South West scheme, Mrs Whiting finishes 300 Holstein Friesian bull calves.

“Health care starts at the farm gate,” she said, going on to detail the strict biosecurity precautions taken on entry to the farm.

When questioned about gaining a premium for being so biosecurity conscious, Mrs Whiting commented that the advantage for the business from pursuing such a rigorous system was creating a sound base for animals to grow efficiently and healthily.

Using a computerised feeding system, calves gain on average 1.3kg a day and finish at 520kg.

Weighing every month and using microchipped ear-tags, animals are constantly monitored for weight gain.

“When calves are below expected weights, we have to look at why: Is it for health reasons, or inadequate rations?”

Mrs Whiting told delegates.

With an average reduction of £8 an animal a year in health care, she is confident of the future, with further housing planned.

Speaking on behalf of the Farm Animal Initiative, director Roland Bonnay emphasised the need for a holistic approach to achieve best practice.

“Health challenges can be managed under three pillars: Management, biosecurity, and vaccination.

“By using a simple matrix, the most efficient approach can be identified, whether it is through management practice, such as improving ventilation, keeping a closed herd or flock or vaccinating.”

Mr Bonnay went on to conclude there is no bullet-proof biosecurity guarantee; each situation must be well thought out and suited to the system to achieve high animal welfare levels and business viability.

Paul Temple, NFU vice-president, stressed the opportunities open to UK farmers through having the highest standards of safety, traceability and farm assurance in the world.

“We will never be the cheapest at producing beef and lamb, but we can be the best.

The resumption of beef exports gives us the chance to earn a significant dividend on all of that investment.

With the shackles that have chained us to the UK multiples finally broken, the prospects of achieving it could hardly be better.”

As the first link in the food chain, food safety must be high on the agenda, commented Allick Simmons, Food Standards Agency vet director.

“Food safety and dietary health should form a part of farm business plans, with cell counts and fat content being stressed.”

Questions during discussion again raised the issue of a price premium for biosecurity, with reduced insurance premiums being suggested by the panel.

“However, the biggest wins are within the industry,” panellists concurred.

emily.padfield@rbi.co.uk