Opinion: Communicate to deliver for animal welfare

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 a better place.

However, almost three years on from the development of the Ruminant Health & Welfare (RH&W) four nations group, some of its achievements are worth reflecting on. 

See also: Survey identifies most problematic sheep and cattle diseases

About the author

Nigel Miller is the immediate past chairman of the Ruminant Health & Welfare (RH&W) group, a qualified vet, a Scottish Borders farmer, and a past president of NFU Scotland. Here he reflects on the work of RH&W and the need for continued collaboration to deliver for animal welfare and climate change.

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 undertaken in May 2021 confirmed long-held views underlining the importance of lameness, bovine viral diarrhoea, Johne’s disease and sheep scab – but also revealed regional and sectoral differences.

The impact and spread of contagious ovine digital dermatitis 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.

Climate change

Tick-borne diseases also emerged as a survey priority, 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 in 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. 

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 been highs for the group.

However, the RH&W 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. This 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 health planning with new systems being trialled.

Working together

RH&W is all about working with farmers and focusing on the health and welfare issues that challenge them.

It’s about managing the health status of ruminants at a national level, and contributing to welfare and efficiency improvements through 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.

To deliver all this, RH&W must focus on communication and being a catalyst for change.

So, 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?

The approach taken will determine the speed and depth of progress in health and welfare, and the buy-in of farmers. Getting the balance right, including the regulatory framework, is crucial.

See more