Full engagement needed with farmers on animal welfare - Veterinary Practice
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Full engagement needed with farmers on animal welfare

Veterinary Practice reports on the latest Farm Animal Well-Being Forum with input from Nic Parsons of Tesco and Matt Yarnall of Boehringer Ingelheim.

CONSIDERING THE GENERAL PUBLIC’S DISCONNECT WITH FARMING in the UK, we are actually in a relatively strong position with regards to how the public perceives our animal well-being credentials. Or so it seems after a recent visit to the Farm Animal Well-Being Forum in Montreal, Canada, which was attended by (among others) Nic Parsons, dairy agricultural manager at Tesco, and Matt Yarnall, brand manager at Boehringer Ingelheim.

In its ninth year, this initiative by Boehringer Ingelheim brings together many leaders and proponents of farm animal well-being from around the world, with a particular focus on cattle.

The first speaker at this forum was Professor Wim Verbeke from Ghent University in Belgium who talked about farm animal welfare through the eyes of key stakeholders versus consumers. It was interesting to note that European citizens claim they are willing to pay 32% more for welfare-friendly products, though the sceptics among us would appreciate that there is often a gap between attitude and behaviour.

Quite relevant to our industry is the fact that the Chinese consumer actually perceives large scale farming to be better than small scale, which appears to be related more to food safety than animal welfare.

The following speaker, Dr Dave Dykshorn, a practising vet in British Columbia, discussed the need for vets to show they are engaging with farmers on animal welfare. Dr Dykshorn was at the centre of a media storm in June 2014 when undercover filming at a farm near to his practice in Canada, and looked after by the practice, revealed some shocking practices that hit the headlines.

Within hours, the farm and practice were facing questions from all sectors of society. The farm, which produced milk for a large and well-known food retail company, lost its milk contract within days. The vets were asked how they had allowed these practices to happen, when clearly they were unaware of them.

While noting that standards of animal welfare are generally higher in the UK than Canada – the UK’s animal welfare standards would most likely be higher than most parts of the world – it highlighted how important it is for the vet to be engaged with, and be seen to be engaged with, farmers on animal welfare and be accountable for it. Having easy-to-follow protocols in place is a key part of this.

Dr Tye Perrett, a feedlot vet in Western Canada, then spoke about the economic benefits of increased farm animal welfare. Whilst often there are improvements in average daily gains following the use of local anaesthetics and NSAIDs for castration and disbudding, or through reduction in dark-cutting beef, often it may appear that welfare improvement does not result in a direct economic benefit.

These measures, however, must be seen as justifying the social licence to produce food, which is important to maintain the confidence of the consumer.

Stress matters

The influence of stress and pain on immunity was then discussed by Prof. Michael Ballou from Texas Tech University. He highlighted that while stress is crucial for livestock to adapt to a change, or an animal’s “loss of control”, it can increase the risk of infectious disease under certain circumstances.

The effect of pain on the immune system was demonstrated by a study that reported that both surgical castration and dehorning suppressed many leukocyte responses. The cortisol response was additive when the procedures were performed together; however, the suppressed leukocyte responses were not additive.

Furthermore, local anaesthetic and NSAIDs attenuated these responses, thus highlighting that contrary to some beliefs, in practice these procedures may be best performed together rather than separately, and should also involve local and NSAID pain relief.

We are all aware of the increasing use of technology in farming and the resultant data it produces, but how much of that data is  being used? Prof. David Kelton, from the University of Guelph, talked about “big data” and its use for measuring and improving animal welfare.

Alarmingly less than 0.5% of data are ever analysed. How much data is available on even the least engaged farm that could be used for an animal health and welfare audit?

Dr Jennifer Walker from Dean Foods presented on the need for farm animal welfare audits as a way of satisfying consumer expectations.

She also referred to the Canadian dairy media storm in 2014, and how within only a few days 130,000 people had signed a petition stopping the farm in question’s milk entering the food chain.

A level of transparency is needed, as well as accountability in which society can have confidence. We should be thinking about common farm issues in another context; how society may see them, she said. For example, would a level of work-related injuries of 25% a year be acceptable to the average workplace?

As mentioned earlier, often there seems to be an attitude-behaviour gap between what consumers “want” and what they are prepared to pay for. Prof. Hans van Trijp from Wageningen University in the Netherlands highlighted the often fickle nature of the consumer and that at the meat-counter, altruistic animal welfare concerns often give way to primary concerns of price, taste and convenience. This highlights the social dilemma of a short-term cost for a long-term gain.

He showed that by increasing the range of varying welfare-friendly products, the consumer is more likely to purchase higher welfare standard products. Thus, while the consumer may not go straight from barn eggs to Freedom Food, Blacktail hen, organic eggs for example, they may go for free range as a first step.

Social licence

The importance of social licence in agriculture was discussed by Crystal Mackay of Farm & Food Care Canada, a coalition of stakeholders committed to sustainable food production. This was a powerful presentation at the end of a long and information-filled day.

The fact that internet searching “cage free eggs” produces predominantly anti-farming links with only two or three that show egg production in a positive light highlights that the industry still has some way to go in order to win the battle in the media. A similar criticism can be levied at agriculture’s engagement with the general public.

The final presentation was given by Bernard Rollin, a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University who has pioneered veterinary medical ethics since the 1970s, and just happens to be a competition-level weight-lifter and Harley rider.

He talked about concepts rather than figures, and one that struck home was that surgeons used to perform open-heart surgery on babies only under the influence of drugs that induced paralysis, without pain relief, in the belief that they didn’t show pain responses and didn’t remember these experiences.

These cases were followed through and were shown to suffer significantly more from chronic pain later in life. So while welfare concepts may change, depending on the science available at the time, ethical beliefs do not. If it seems the right thing to give pain relief, then give it.

In summary, this Boehringer Ingelheim Farm Animal Well-Being Forum provided a lot to think about. There were some good ideas to put into practice but the take-home message was that we need to make sure that we are fully engaged with our farmers on animal welfare.

While we may not change our farmers’ behaviours overnight, at least if we provide the protocols and information we can start to change them where needed and be accountable for it. However, we need to be more proud of the fact that, on the whole, welfare standards in the UK are amongst the highest in the world – and we need to tell the public.

The recent Open Farm Sundays are a great example of this, and should there be any farming scare stories in the media, if the public is engaged with farming they are far less likely to believe the scare stories than their own experiences.

  • For more information, and to download the proceedings from this and previous years’ Well-Being Forums, go to www.farmanimalwellbeing.eu

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