Since conducting a Nuffield Farming Scholarship looking at "Alternatives to Antibiotics in Agriculture" I've come to realise that fields are more than a source of forage for livestock. They are a maternity ward, a crèche, a toilet, a restaurant, a pharmacy and a bed. The balance of these variables can affect output. If we maintain stocking rates that pollute grazing with faeces then the value of feed intake is compromised. We expect our animals to maintain a high degree of health whilst at pasture and spend a considerable amount of hard earned cash purchasing and administering animal health products to maintain a level of acceptable output from our livestock assets. We however are often the cause of the need for these products. Our husbandry can upset the balance resulting in sick animals.
We concentrate nutrients out of balance. We graze animals on crops of red clover, we supplement their feed with fodder beet and high polyunsaturated fat content rye grass silage or out winter on kale and then wonder why our cows hold on to their afterbirth. These crops contain goitrogens that inhibit iodine uptake by the thyroid gland. Getting iodine into these cows to address the balance can be done in many ways. Feeding kelp seems to be a great way of doing so. There are other ways, but we need to know that a balance must be achieved to maintain healthy animals.
Stocking rate increases have also upset the balance of our maternity wards. Intensification and increased numbers of animals per hectare has seen us as farmers calving, lambing, farrowing and hatching indoors, or under increased pressure in dedicated paddocks outside. As a result, animals such as calves land on surfaces infested by a cocktail of some pretty infective bacteria. A soup of wet muck covered over by a thin layer of supposedly clean straw. Their umbilical cords would not be subjected to such infestation in the wild. Yes, there would probably be e.coli pasteurella, klebsiella and other infective bacteria in a natural field environment, but these would be out numbered by non-infective bacteria. From the moment these calves injest colostrum, it take three days for their adaptive immunity to develop. This is the type of defence that protects them from bacterial infections. In my discussions with dairy farmers, I've learned that calf scour is considered normal. They have the same number of calving pens for four hundred cows as they did when they had one hundred.
Another variable out of balance is the amount of work done on farm compared to the financial returns achieved. We seem, as an industry, to be busy increasing the numbers of animals we keep with less and less staff and for less return per unit of production. The big stress escalator being the dreaded occurrence of disease outbreak.
One of the big things I learned on my Nuffield was that the health of the young animal determines it's lifetime production output. Sick smolt salmon never grow as well when they get to the sea cages, piglets that scour struggle to finish with the rest of the batch, sick lambs struggle to survive. The animal health products we buy such as antibiotics limit the effect of an infection. It seem to me that we need to start working on limiting the infection from taking hold in the first place. To do so, we have to generate evidence as to what we have out of balance.