Dairy sector playing catch-up

Seamus CamplissonSeamus Camplisson
Seamus Camplisson
The absolute necessity for Northern Ireland’s livestock farming industry to further reduce its reliance on antimicrobials was the main focus of a webinar recently hosted by the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU) and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).

The event, which took the form of a Question and Answer Session with a panel of four experts in the field of animal health and antimicrobial resistance (AMR), was jointly chaired by YFCU Agriculture and Rural Affairs Chair Jessica Pollock and DAERA’s Deputy Director of Animal Health & Welfare Policy Jim Blee.

The group of expert panellists comprised: Seamus Camplisson (Head of Health Protection Branch, Department of Health), Cathal Carr (AVSPNI President), Robert Huey (Chief Veterinary Officer) and Colin Smith (Industry Development Manager, Livestock and Meat Commission NI).

Jessica and Jim stressed the need for farmers to address the challenge of improving the general health standards ‘enjoyed’ by the animals in their care. The pair also pointed to the need for ‘improved biosecurity’ to become a reality on every farm in Northern Ireland

Colin SmithColin Smith
Colin Smith

In the question and answer session that followed, Robert Huey stressed the significance of the ‘One Health’ strategy agreed jointly by the veterinary and medical professional in 2019.

He added:“Both professions are on the same page when it comes to tackling AMR. The reality is that patients are dying right now with conditions such as cystic fibrosis and chronic lung disease because the bacteria causing these debilitating health problems are totally resistant to all the antibiotics that are currently available.”

The Chief Veterinary Office confirmed that antimicrobial usage rates have fallen considerably within Northern Ireland’s livestock sectors over recent years.

He commented: “Major strides have been made by poultry and pig producers but progress is still very slow within the dairy, cattle and sheep sectors.”

Robert HueyRobert Huey
Robert Huey

Robert continued: “Dairy is the next priority sector, as the latest figures would indicate that antibiotic usage rates are still worryingly high within that industry.”

Colin Smith pointed to the greater use of E medicine books within the pig and poultry sectors, adding: “We are also dealing with significantly smaller numbers of farmers within these industries. As a result, it is relatively straightforward to collate the information that is available from these businesses.

“In contrast, there are many more producers within the red meat industry. Most livestock farmers still use traditional medicine books, which makes it much harder to get a firm grasp of how they actually use antimicrobials.

“A major push is now being made to get more accurate and current information from these businesses farms, where antimicrobial usage is concerned. We need better data.”

Cathal CarrCathal Carr
Cathal Carr

Colin also profiled the key role of the Farm Quality Assurance Scheme (FQAS) in helping to deliver better management standards, across the board, where cattle and sheep farms are concerned.

He commented: “Leading food companies are also playing an important role in driving down the use of antimicrobials within agriculture. A case in point is McDonald’s Corporation’s zero tolerance policy regarding the use of certain key antibiotics within the beef sector. Very soon organisations like this will be asking the fundamental question: do we need antimicrobials of any kind when it comes to managing farm animals?”

Cathal Carr stressed the need for all farmers to prevent diseases from getting a grip within their herds and flocks in the first place.

He said: “Better management practises will help reduce the level of pneumonia and other diseases in calves and other young animals. A greater commitment to vaccination will also help to lower disease levels across the board on farms.

“In lots of cases, young animals are being reared in facilities that are not fit-for-purpose. Many farms across Northern Ireland still feature buildings that are up to 80 years’ old.”

Both of the veterinarians on the panel highlighted the need for farmers to use antimicrobials responsibly at all times, citing the adage: use antibiotics as little as possible but as much as is necessary.

Seamus Camplisson endorsed the ‘One Health’ strategy. He said that medical doctors are being encouraged to reduce their reliance on antibiotics when treating patients, adding:

“Northern Ireland has the highest prescription rate for antibiotics in the UK. This has to change.”

Camplisson welcomed the fact that greater numbers of DAERA staff are now working on the challenge of AMR. But he held out little hope of new antibiotics being the ‘silver bullet’ that will solve the AMR debacle.

“There is no financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotics,” he explained.

“Any new drugs coming on to the market will be used as treatments of last resort. As a consequence, their use will be quite restricted. This, in turn, puts a big question on whether or not manufacturers will ever recoup their development costs.”

All the panellists were pleased that there was such a good turnout of young people for the webinar and the fact that so many of them actively participated in the event.

Robert Huey concluded: “We are relying on our young and educated farmers to change the industry. The future is theirs.”

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