There were nearly 90 presentations at the British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) Congress 2021, plus over a dozen posters and more than 50 exhibitor stands; information and discussions come at you throughout. It is interesting to know just how much research and understanding is taking place, but it is only possible to gain a small insight into significant developments. The overall impression is that Congress enables veterinary surgeons in cattle practice to fine-tune their activities on behalf of clients.
Peter Orpin, a past president of BCVA, discussed how the management of Johne’s disease is moving up a gear by utilising hard data. As 95 percent of UK farmers now have a Johne’s Management Plan, it is important to track and measure the progress of a herd in a consistent and useful way. The farmer “owns” the disease, and the herd is subject to a Red Tractor audit. It is established that a test and cull approach is “ruinous” unless new infections are prevented or, as Peter puts it, you need “the grindy old hygiene stuff”. Data from 257 milk-recorded herds have been used to provide benchmark indicators of a range of parameters for Johne’s disease. The BCVA training portal has information about the Johne’s Tracker, and useful information is lodged within the Action Johne’s website. The parameters and their interpretations are also available through the My Healthy Herd platform.
As 95 percent of UK farmers now have a Johne’s Management Plan, it is important to track and measure the progress of a herd in a consistent and useful way
Analysis of milk-recorded herds
Since 2010, there has been analysis of a random selection of 500 milk-recorded herds by Reading University, with the same parameters used each year. James Hanks discussed the findings at BCVA Congress 2021. The aim was to provide key performance indicators that can be directly compared against the performance of an individual herd.
The median herd size of the 2020 group was 174 cows, with a median age at calving of 2.3 years and at exit of 6 years, giving an average productive life of 3.7 years. The median lactations per cow at exit was 3.5 lactations, which was less than in 2010, and the culling rate has increased to 28 percent. The median calving interval was 400 days in 2020, a decrease from 424 in 2010. Conception rate has improved, but one in four herds has a figure of 29 percent or less. Somatic cell counts (SCC) continue to improve with 69 percent of herds below 200 cells per ml, and there was a fall in chronic high SCC cows from 14 percent in 2010 to 9 percent in 2020. On Johne’s, the summary is that “the disease is widespread and the evidence of effective control is inconsistent”.
For veterinary practices, an analysis of groups of dairy herds is available, which will allow more detailed awareness of performance over time with clients
For veterinary practices, an analysis of groups of dairy herds is available, which will allow more detailed awareness of performance over time with clients. As cows are leaving herds at an earlier age by half a lactation, with 40 percent of herds culling 30 percent or more cows, the question was raised in discussion of whether the national drive to improve health standards is leading to increased culling.
The future of farm animal practice
John Remnant discussed the findings from his travels as a Nuffield Scholar to look into the future of farm animal practice. His opening salvo was that the structure of practice is changing, income streams are changing, the role of the veterinary surgeon is changing and the services offered by practices are changing. These challenges are being faced by veterinary surgeons and veterinary practices on a global scale. The biggest threat is not having the vets to service the needs of clients, with recruitment and retention a major difficulty. Unfortunately, John concluded that there is no single answer to these challenges; small gains have to be made to the veterinary lifeline.
[John Remnant’s] opening salvo was that the structure of practice is changing, income streams are changing, the role of the veterinary surgeon is changing and the services offered by practices are changing
Student admissions are now leaning towards motivation rather than family background, and good practical skills are required, but these may not be inspiring. Instead, students consider that sustainable work to bring about change, such as reducing antibiotic use and disease control, are more stimulating.
There is a need to compete with other employers, with a pleasant workplace culture now including flexible working. New technologies allow data to pass directly from the farm to the practice, but a veterinary presence on-farm is still needed. There is also a global need for veterinary surgeons to “showcase what we do”.
Engaging clients in practice management decisions may be a worthwhile consideration. One of the innovations being discussed is for clients to be involved in the appointment of new vets, as this may improve the link between farm animal clients and the practice moving forward.
The role of front-of-house staff
The role of veterinary practice staff in improving antimicrobial stewardship has been assessed as part of the Arwain Vet Cymru project. Deb Butler canvassed the views from 20 “front-of-house” staff, with the majority having been in the job for 10 to 20 years. She discovered that there has been minimal formalised training, but most act as if they know what they are doing, having “learnt on the job”.
Their role is hugely variable between practices and can include managing the dispensary, taking orders, dispensing medicines and providing a shoulder to lean on for the vets
As front of house, they see themselves as the go-between, or “piggy in the middle”, involving the client and the vet. But as a gatekeeper, they need “a bit of banter” with clients “as [clients] can be grumpy with us but nice as pie with the vet”. The role can be stressful and emotional support is often required. Their role is hugely variable between practices and can include managing the dispensary, taking orders, dispensing medicines and providing a shoulder to lean on for the vets. As the vet has to approve any dispensing, a major difficulty is when a vet cannot be contacted, but one of the positive outcomes from the COVID-19 restrictions has been that clients contact the practice first, rather than just turning up seeking medicines.
The project concludes that the contribution of lay staff to antimicrobial stewardship should not be overlooked. The British Veterinary Receptionist Association recognises the need for training and the interpersonal skills required for the role, but many staff are unaware that training is available.
Seeing cattle welfare through the eyes of the consumer was addressed by Susie Stannard, who has been working with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) to help farmers and processors to understand their end customers.
Price is the number one driver for the consumer with animal welfare second, and human health is considered more important than animal welfare. It is noted that 0.6 percent of the population is vegan, and negative news has reduced meat consumption. The percentage of people who think that dairy farming is good for the countryside has fallen and now stands at 46 percent. During COVID-19, the bad news content for dairy has fallen, together with other topics. The issues of concern raised by consumers about animal welfare are cow and calf separation, the fate of dairy bull calves, access to grazing, intensive factory farming and hormones or additives entering the food chain.
The availability of local food is becoming more important to consumers, and animal welfare standards are seen as a key battle against imports. There is a high percentage of trust in British farmers and they are seen to care for animals and the environment
The availability of local food is becoming more important to consumers, and animal welfare standards are seen as a key battle against imports. There is a high percentage of trust in British farmers and they are seen to care for animals and the environment, but Susie warns that there is “bad information out there”.
Perceptions of dairy cow welfare
Amy Jackson described a 2,000-person survey on perceptions of dairy cow welfare; the results are somewhat surprising. Memories, experiences and recall from the past lead to the notion that the cow is enduring, stoic, a force of nature and a fellow traveller in life. The consumer appears to have deep connections with the cow and feels that they are part of our heritage. Traditional and modernising farm practices are seen as having both positive and negative aspects, and there are concerns that farmers are struggling to cope. There is tension about what is known and suspected about farming, and people “don’t know what goes on”. Milking is viewed both as a relief for cows and a distressing experience and there is support for robotic milking because “the cow makes her own decisions”.
The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway initiative
There are high ideals for the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway initiative. Michael Seals explained that an annual health and welfare review by a veterinary surgeon will help to raise awareness of endemic disease, support healthy livestock, promote responsible use of veterinary medicines, improve welfare and increase sustainable farm productivity. Defra will fund the yearly visit by the vet for three years, for all livestock farms. Initially involvement will be voluntary, but is expected to become mandatory.
The annual health and welfare review will include diagnostic testing for priority diseases and conditions, and farm bespoke advice on health, welfare, biosecurity and the responsible use of medicines. Data will be collected to better understand the health and welfare of the national herd and flock, with year-on-year progress for each farm being measured and set against benchmarking standards. From the autumn of 2022, grants to achieve recommended actions and training for farmers will be available with further financial welfare improvement support planned for 2024.
The annual health and welfare review will include diagnostic testing for priority diseases and conditions, and farm bespoke advice on health, welfare, biosecurity and the responsible use of medicines
Each veterinary visit from April 2022 will be coordinated and structured. In the first year, all of the 88,000 farmers who are eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme will be targeted. The pathway initiative is not fixed, but is evolving and veterinary practices will be the key to success. Public money is being spent and it will be essential that improved animal health and welfare is seen to benefit the public. Smaller farmers are important parts of the disease chain and they must be included.
An example priority for beef and dairy farming is that a tissue test for bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) on every calf born in England during the first 12 months of the pathway initiative will be fully funded. During discussions it was highlighted that the farmers who have embraced BVDFree and CHeCS must not feel that their efforts to date are not worthwhile, otherwise farmers may just wait for a government bailout rather than tackle the problems themselves. From the off, the pathway will need to be seen as a positive development for all farmers.
Practice managers have much to consider if some of the difficulties for cattle vets are to be overcome, but there are clear opportunities to assist clients and enhance the national reputation for animal welfare. It will be interesting to learn at the next BCVA Congress how matters have progressed.