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Animal health is at the heart of sustainable livestock business

‘Healthy livestock produce sustainable food’ is a whitepaper launched by MSD Animal Health earlier this year, which highlights how good animal health maximises production for each unit of input, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and gives the industry a competitive edge in the global market.

Dr Paul Williams, MSD Animal Health technical manager (ruminants) and co-author of the paper, says:

The farming industry has worked hard in recent years to improve animal health and welfare, reduce antimicrobial use and improve consumer trust, all while driving productivity.

For any business to be sustainable, it has to be profitable and, within livestock farming, animal health is critical to this.

A healthy animal will produce a higher yield per unit of input, while having increased overall productivity and lifespan and, for the same reasons, also results in a smaller carbon footprint than an unhealthy animal, as more is produced for less resource use.

  • Economics

    The report explains that a maintenance cost of meeting an animal’s basic nutritional and health needs can be attributed to each animal before its production, pregnancy, lactation or growth are taken into account.

    If this maintenance cost can be spread over a higher level of production, such as more meat or milk, each unit will be cheaper to produce.

    In any system, whether extensive grazing-based or dependent on housing and cereal feeds, production per unit of input can be seriously impacted by poor animal health.

    It is estimated that 20%1 of animal production worldwide is lost as a result of disease.

    Sick animals perform less well than healthy ones and this is not only seen in reduced growth rates or lower milk yields.

    Reduced fertility, abortions, stillbirths, poor carcase quality and increased mortality all impact on a business’ economic viability and, therefore, its long-term sustainability.

  • Environment

    With climate change and its causes an increasingly important issue, the impact of livestock production on the environment is a source of much debate and dispute, both within the industry and among consumers.

    But what is clear from the report is that, regardless of production system, the relationship between animal health and economic viability also applies to environmental responsibility.

    In livestock systems, higher producing, faster growing animals need less land, water and fossil fuel for each unit of output.

  • Social acceptability

    Social acceptability can be difficult to define, particularly in this social media age, but what is clear is that consumers want a trusted food source and 94%2 of surveyed consumers believe it is important to protect the welfare of farmed animals.

    If livestock systems contain components which are likely to be morally unacceptable to a substantial part of the population, the future of that system is unlikely to be sustainable.

    In addition to the ethical reasons for maintaining good animal health, there are practical aspects linked to social acceptability.

    Food produced from livestock must be safe to eat with robust traceability and auditing protocols in place in which consumers can have the utmost confidence.

    In recent years the livestock industry has put in place improved animal husbandry, housing, hygiene and biosecurity practices, is breeding more disease resistant animals and vaccinating to protect them against future disease.

    The result is healthier animals which require less veterinary input and treatment, including using less antibiotics, preserving their use for when it is proven they are needed, which benefits the farmer, the animal and the consumer.

Chris Whitford, near Wantage, Oxfordshire

Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador Chris Whitford milks 300 spring calving cows in a share
farming agreement near Wantage, Oxfordshire.

Disease? Not On My Farm ambassador Chris Whitford
Disease? Not On My Farm ambassador Chris Whitford

He says: “In terms of sustainability, I think it is about future-proofing your business to mitigate against things such as climate change. “Our milk goes to Arla, which is working towards being carbon net zero and we are pleased to be part of that.

An example of something we have done ourselves is that when we put up the new building we put in the infrastructure to capture rainwater, with all the roof water coming through one pipe, should we need to irrigate in the future in the event of increasingly hot, drier summers.

As a spring calving herd, one issue regarding sustainability which is on our radar is calves. The trend for spring calving is to have a smaller cow which then produces a smaller calf and this sometimes is not seen as ideal for the beef trade.

Last year we started using sexed semen on some of cows at the start, which allowed us to use more beef straws at the backend.

This means we should get our replacement heifers quickly and they will be the oldest, which should mean we can get them in-calf earlier, they will calve easily and fit back into the calving block.

Another major threat to the sustainability of the business is disease, in our case TB. We need a certain amount of litres to be profitable and anything which means we lose cows or impacts on yield affects this, so being proactive in disease prevention is important to us.”

Ian Alderson, near Craven Arms, Shropshire

Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador Ian Alderson runs a beef, sheep, arable and poultry unit near Craven Arms, Shropshire.

Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador Ian Alderson
Disease? Not On My Farm! ambassador Ian Alderson

He says: “For my business, sustainability is all about producing as much home-grown feed as we can, which although not without a cost, means we are self-sufficient and do not need to buy-in any straw, cereals or forage.

We are a mixed farm with livestock, cereals and a free-range broiler unit, which not only spreads the risk, but means we have valuable muck available, which all goes back onto the land completing the cycle.

As well as improving soil structure and fertility, it also reduces the amount of expensive inorganic fertiliser I need to buy.

We operate a five-year rotation system using grass as a break crop. By managing the land well, it is more productive in terms of crops and providing good grass for livestock, keeping them healthy as well as keeping production costs down. This is particularly relevant when prices for finished stock are not good.

We take a preventative approach to animal health for sheep and cattle, as healthy animals are more productive animals and require less management input.

We have vaccination and disease surveillance programmes in place and will shortly be vaccinating calves against pneumonia and testing cattle for BVD.

We work closely with our vet on health planning.”


1. World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE 2015).
2. Eurobarometer 2015.
First published in Farmers Guardian in 2019


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