Does your biosecurity need beefed up?

Friday, 31 August, 2018

Commodity Watch, By Policy Officer, Dr Geoff Thompson

The first of September marks the change of the seasons, but as the dark nights role in, there appears to be little light at the end of the tunnel for the formation of a new Stormont Executive. The political limbo in Northern Ireland has now extended to 593 days and counting and this impasse has become a serious impediment to progress on a wide range of matters affecting animal health and welfare in Northern Ireland.

In recent months, the UFU’s Animal Health and Welfare committee have continued to represent farmers on a wide range of issues including animal welfare during transport, avian influenza, pig and poultry welfare, BVD, and responsible usage of antibiotics on farm. However, significant progress on issues such bovine TB (which are deeply embedded in legislation) have been hampered by the absence of a political body that is willing or able to take legislative decisions. At present, DAERA staff are continuing to formulate policy advice for the day a Minister takes charge. However, the court’s decision on the powers of civil servants in the absence of a Minister in relation to the Hightown Quarry incinerator has made it very clear that industry should expect no legislative movement until the Executive is restored or direct rule Ministers are in place. Given the wafer thin majority of the Conservative Party in Westminster and its apparent reluctance to get embroiled in Northern Ireland politics combined with the publicly portrayed distance between Northern Ireland’s main political parties, it would appear that we are unlikely to see any political leadership on this issue in the near future. As such, for now it appears that we are on our own and as a result, must look for the ‘self-help’ solutions available to protect ourselves such as maintaining and continuously seeking to improve animal health and on-farm biosecurity.

I always find discussing improvements to biosecurity to be an interesting topic with farmers (I’m always very conscious that there’s a risk of sounding patronising and removed from the practical realities of farming when you spend your days in an office). In my experience, there is no one perfect solution that works for every farm; each business has its own unique set of risks, circumstances, and financial priorities. Like all pragmatic business owners, farmers are constantly subconsciously asking themselves “Is this the right investment for my business?”, “What will the rate of return on this investment be?”, and “Where does this measure up against other investments I could be making to improve my business?”. With this in mind, I try to avoid advocating any one course of action as every farm has a different need and cost benefit analysis – what is right for one business could be ridiculous for another. Instead I prefer to encourage a continuous circle of improvement by asking farmers to consider a series of questions: “What are the biggest risks to your livestock?“, What could you do about these risks?”, “Which of these options is most appropriate for your farm?”, and “Did the solution work?”. As stated previously, this a continuous process of improvement, but there are many resources available at any stage of the process to help identify issues, select solutions, and implement plans if people are willing to ask for help. What is however abundantly clear is that animal health makes up a significant proportion of the cost of production on any farm and that regardless of where you are along this journey, there will be something that you can implement to reduce your risk exposure and improve your business profitability if you are willing to have an open mind and explore the possibilities.