TAKING SIMPLE steps to improve animal health and welfare on farm would help livestock farmers significantly reduce greenhouse gas emission rates on farm.

Scientists from the Moredun Research Institute believe that by prioritising disease prevention, livestock farmers can play an important part in improving flock and herd productivity, which will in turn lead to a reduction in the amount of GHG released per kilo of food.

Moredun’s scientific director Julie Fitzpatrick explained: “In the livestock sector, approximately 20% of productivity globally is lost due to endemic or production diseases. Many of these are caused by infectious agents resulting in common issues such as pneumonia, lameness, abortion and poor reproduction, and mastitis, to name but a few.

"Preventing disease therefore reduces waste in primary production – fewer animals die or have their growth curtailed, poor welfare associated with disease is alleviated, herds and flocks produce the optimal number of offspring per season through better breeding and feeding, and the food derived from livestock is of better quality and safe for consumption.

“Farmers should focus on common diseases which have the highest impact on the farm and try to get preventative methods in place, which might sound simple but we know lots of farmers don’t do that,” said Prof Fitzpatrick.

Moredun’s Principal Scientist in Parasitology, Dr Philip Skuce, pointed out that diseases such as Johne’s and fluke can have a direct impact on growth rates, feed conversion efficiency and replacement rates, due to premature culling. Dr Skuce said that there were good intervention strategies, including effective monitoring and using the right product at the right time – but acknowledged that although this sounded simple, the advice could get lost in transmission amongst the thousands of other things that farmers have to deal with.

Nonetheless, Dr Skuce insisted that prioritising animal health would have an immediate impact on GHG emissions reduction – more so than other measures currently under discussion: “There is a lot of talk about breeding to reduce emissions and feeding additives such as seaweed which are all very interesting approaches, but they aren’t available yet and are all underpinned by a good health status. They are not expressed optimally if animals are not healthy in the first place.”

He added that technology and innovation had a key role to play too: “Weight crates and general weighing equipment allow farmers to weigh their animals not only for benchmarking purposes but it will show up when things aren’t quite right, what things are slowing down growth rates and can help identify optimal wormer treatments and optimal chemical usage – all of these things help.”

Prof Fitzpatrick concluded by stressing that other methane emitters must also play their part in reducing emissions, but that the livestock sector can’t ignore the changes coming down the track: “I’m confident that if we manage to get all farmers across Scotland doing something positive – in terms of prioritising disease prevention – it would make a substantial inroad in herd and flock health but also to the perception of sustainable farming and what we can do to maintain our food production.”