Sunshine a welcome sight after the wettest winter

Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary
Gwyn Jones' Farm Diary

A fine week with some glorious days has dried things up considerably, and whilst some of the heavy farms are still marginal for travel in some fields, the lighter soils could do with a shower or two.

This would not suit those who are making hay and silage of course and I don’t think any rain is forecasted this coming week. This would fit in with the Met Office forecast of a week ago predicting at least two weeks dry weather. Given that it’s Wimbledon (strawberries and Champagne) and Glastonbury (whatever takes your fancy) are coming up, it is inconceivable that it will not rain soon.

After the wettest winter in England and Wales (it was not so wet in Scotland) since 1766 the Met Office’s message ‘very little rain in the next two weeks’ means that technically the country could experience an ‘absolute drought’ where no more than 0.2mm of rain falls for 15 consecutive days! I think we are a long way from an ‘agricultural drought’ where crops struggle for moisture, and nowhere near a ‘hydrological drought’, where aquifers, lakes and reservoirs fall below established statistical averages.

It’s been quite a busy couple of weeks as I have been over in Brussels making a short video clip for the EPRUMA (European Platform for the Responsible use of Medicines in Animals) website and catching up on the animal health package as it winds its torturous route through the Commission.

There are many things to challenge and work on in order to make sure that farmers and veterinary surgeons are not unnecessarily put in an impossible position in their efforts to look after farm and companion animals properly and responsibly.

There are big questions to answer, such as should veterinary surgeons be allowed to prescribe medicines as well as diagnose condition and illness? Should antibiotics be used to prevent illness and disease or only to treat sick animals? Should national targets be set to reduce antibiotic use in animals? What beurocratic measures should be put in place in order to control, record and measure medicine use?

Up at NFU HQ at Stoneleigh I was working on a lecture and power-point presentation which I will present at an International Conference at Bordeaux in France this Friday, titled ‘Rational use of anti-infectives – Consequences and scenarios for the pharmaceutical industry’.

The Conference is organised by ‘CEVA Sante Animale’ or CEVA as we all know it, based in Buckinghamshire actually, producing many medicines for animals and well known for supplying the biggest dog charity with DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) collars which help make dog’s living in shelter’s lives less stressful. My paper is entitled ‘What modern Farming may expect from veterinarians and the pharmaceutical industry’.

Last week I was in Edinburgh and although the Highland Show was on I did not have an opportunity to visit, but I did bump into many farmers and colleagues at the airport! The new tram system is now in operation, and having watched it being built over the years I was keen to ride to the city on this new service.

Having bought a ticket from a machine I was very surprised to see that the tram had a driver and a conductor, which threw any idea that this was a 21st century service out of the window. The weather was magnificent, hotter than Sussex, but there was no air conditioning; we all sweltered in over like conditions which were bad enough for some of my colleagues to catch the bus back to the airport the next day. Very disappointing indeed.

We were meeting Scottish representatives as FAWC (Farm Animal Welfare Council), where again there is great pressure to produce reports and opinions on various issues and topics. As government cut-backs bite hard at Defra, the workload seems to only increase, and fewer staff to administer all the committees and activities taking place. I have always been very impressed with the quality of Civil Servants assisting us on FAWC, as welfare legislation is complex and lengthy, but important for anyone keeping animals. We attempt to produce reports and opinions which strive for the highest welfare but are also practical and sensible, which is not as easy as it sounds.

One of our colleagues (a Professor of economics at Reading University)had travelled from Cardiff where he addressed the International conference on bovine TB that morning, arguing that it is very difficult for cattle farmers to increase their bio-security on farm. Unlike pigs and poultry units, extensive cattle farming exposes the farmer’s animals to wildlife and indeed on farm boundaries to other farmer’s cattle. He used sheep scab as a typical example of most farmers doing the right thing, but if a neighbouring farmer does not, infection takes place.

It was interesting to read that the Chief Veterinary Officer in Wales Christianne Glossop state that annual testing of cattle has been the cornerstone of Wales’ success in reducing bovine TB levels. There was a dramatic reduction in TB levels last year with 6000 cattle slaughtered compared to 9000 the previous year. In excess of 11,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2008 and in 2009 following the introduction of annual testing and the CVO stated that the programme is built around keeping TB out, finding it fast, stopping it spreading and stamping it out. Significantly, the CVO claimed that it was unlikely that the vaccination programme in Wales had been a factor in the decline of TB in cattle.

At the same conference Defra Chief Scientist Ian Boyd acknowledged the difficulty resulting from the ‘politicisation’ of the disease, where farmer is pitched against animal rights activists, and stated very clearly that bovine TB is primarily a sociological problem and not an epidemiological one.

Meanwhile at the Farmers Union of Wales Annual Meeting in Aberystwyth, Gareth Jones adviser to Wales’ Farm Minister Alun Davies, stated that Wales will have to do more to deal with TB in wildlife beyond vaccinating badgers. Bovine TB can never be eradicated unless it is dealt with in wildlife he claimed. He admitted that politically, TB eradication is a political minefield and few politicians are brave enough to make such decisions, but that CVO Christianne Glossop is convinced that short of getting cattle vaccine something will have to be done about wildlife he stated. This saga goes on in England and Wales and with an election in England next year and in Wales the following year not much more will be done I suspect.

The final roll of the dice from Justin King at Sainsbury’s after 10 years of success had a surprise for us all last week when it was announced that they are to team up with ‘Netto’ discount stores, Denmark’s biggest retailer. Netto failed in the UK in the past, criticised for dowdy stores and limited choice and ended up selling to Asda, but this time both companies are putting £12.5 each into a joint venture where Sainsbury’s will contribute with its expertise in distribution, and Netto will compete at the ‘value’ end of the market, offering rock-bottom prices on basic groceries but adding extra appeal with Danish Pastries and high quality bread. David McCarthy, a retail analyst at HSBC was unimpressed ‘The solution to the discounter problem is profit and loss investment, not capital investment with a competitor to accelerate the problem’.

He said that Sainsbury’s would be better off lowering prices in its own stores. Farmers and suppliers are worried that the drive for lower and lower prices in the retail sector will impact on their prices and profits.