Stephen Cadogan: Animal Health Ireland of huge benefit to farmers

Animal Health Ireland must be commended on its slow and steady progress in disease eradication.
Stephen Cadogan: Animal Health Ireland of huge benefit to farmers

Receiving only €530,000 of state funding in 2014, the group is well on the way to securing the health of our dairy and beef herds, the cornerstones of our €10bn per year food and drink exports.

Established in 2009, it is best known to farmers for its programme to eradicate bovine viral diarrhoea, BVD, from the national cattle herd by the end of 2020. Success will be worth €102m per year to farmers.

It was a huge task to organise the testing of all new-born calves since 2013, but Animal Health Ireland has been helped by very strong farmer engagement, resulting in more than 99% of all registered calves having been tested for BVD each year since the programme became compulsory.

The incidence of infected calves detected has fallen 31%, from 0.67% in 2013 to 0.46% in 2014, and 0.3% so far in 2015.

Animal Health Ireland is chasing savings of €37.6m for the dairy industry in the CellCheck national mastitis control programme, which it co-ordinates and facilitates.

The objective is continuing milk quality improvement, with a target of 75% of milk from farms having a somatic cell count under 200,000 by the end of 2020.

A cell count reduction from above 400,000 to under 100,000 would increase overall returns to farmers and processors by 4.8c per litre of milk.

The progress report here is that the proportion of milk recording herds with a count under 200,000 reached 55% in 2014, having ranged from 25% to 35% in the 2004-2010 period.

In all its programmes, Animal Health Ireland has painstakingly prepared and moved carefully, learning the relevant lessons and refining the programmes as it went.

Preparation now focuses on Johne’s disease, through a pilot national dairy programme. At the end of 2013, it was intended to recruit some 1,000 dairy herds to the programme, but 1,900 herd owners have agreed to the terms and conditions of the programme — proof of the value seen by farmers in tackling this disease.

The Johne’s disease programme is largely about controlling the risk that an infected cow represents to calves in the group, and helping the farmer manage these risks.

Animal Health Ireland CEO Joe O’Flaherty believes that Ireland, as a food exporting nation, should aspire to stand in the first rank of countries worldwide in terms of animal health status. He says with more robust and expanded funding, the return on investment which it has demonstrated to date can be extended into new areas, such as a programme to improve fertility in the national beef herd, or the establishment of animal health programmes for species other than cattle.

Animal Health Ireland chairman Mike Magan says Ireland must compete with other countries, and deal with any diseases that may arise due to dairy expansion — and it must be robustly funded to achieve that.

Funding is largely based on private sector subscriptions, and partial matching of these by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The large milk processors are on board, and Animal Health Ireland recently agreed with meat processors represented by Meat Industry Ireland on significant six-figure funding.

Having started with a 50-50 split between department funding and funding from the private and sub-private sectors, Animal Health Ireland now gets only 43% of its total subscriber income from the department.

However, it opposes 100% State funding, with Mike Magan favouring industry co-funding as he says it keeps Animal Health Ireland on its toes and relevant to the needs of the industry. He suggests a redeployment of the national disease levy, or says a very small amount from every animal would be good models to help.

Animal Health Ireland also deserves praise for rejecting opportunities to acquire significant funding from commercial interests in the pharmaceutical industry, and saying it will not allow any compromise of its evidence-driven approach, because it trades on its reputation with farmers, and on advice which is independent and science-based.

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