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Rome was not built in a day

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OVER a decade ago, I was called to a farm to examine a large building full of cattle. This case sticks in my mind as one that showcases the true balance of deciding whether to treat or to allow time for a natural resolution – a dilemma that many practitioners still struggle with.

As I entered the building, I looked around and it was apparent that more than half of the animals, nearly all big fattening steers, displayed the clinical signs of a mild upper respiratory tract infection.

‘I can't understand it’, Paul the farmer said, ‘They all had infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and parainfluenza virus 3 vaccines two months ago when they came inside, and this building is well isolated and hasn't been changed’, he added. ‘Aye, but they have sure got something now, when did it start?’, I asked. ‘Sometime yesterday’, he replied. ‘But the funny thing is that they have all continued to eat. Not one has stood back’, he added. ‘You're sure?’ I asked. ‘Certain, I was so surprised that we double checked.’

Paul was a very experienced livestock auctioneer and his father farmed a beef suckler herd, farming was in his blood. I believed him. ‘Well Paul, you know the drill,’ I continued. ‘It is most likely some form of viral infection, but unlikely to be IBR or respiratory syncytial virus.’

I had estimated the value of the animals in the building to be somewhere around £100,000, this being a conservative estimate.

‘We can use antibiotics to cover any possible secondary infection. We can run them through a crush taking temperatures for reference, injecting them all with a long-acting antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory and maybe some vitamin E with selenium. The total cost of treatment may well be the value of one or two animals, or we can . . .’ ‘Yes?’, Paul inquired. ‘Do nothing. Since they are all eating, we could do nothing. Provided you do exactly what I propose. You should provide a relaxed and quiet environment for these animals. Do not change the feed, but all the same, give them the best quality of that feed, the best bedding you have, make the place really quiet, no sudden noises, no drafts, but equally no foggy, unventilated areas,’ I said. ‘I think that's a good plan,’ Paul agreed. ‘Don't get me wrong, I am not being a cheapskate’, he added, ‘but I have two experienced stockmen who can do just that. But aren't you losing a good deal of money by not treating them?’, he asked. ‘Well Paul, not everyone would listen to this advice or have the experience or know-how to manage the animals the way we want. I think the risk of losing animals is lower if we do this, never mind the money and the hassle to treat each one,’ I replied. ‘I guess one problem is that folk might accuse you and me of doing nothing. But it's more like the doctor telling us to go home and rest isn't it?’, Paul suggested. ‘Yup, you got it Paul,’ I confirmed.

And the steers did ok. That was not the only time we controlled disease outbreaks with management changes rather than treatment. Yet the impression one gets is that many within the profession are unaware that many practitioners have taken this approach. An approach that is not just profit-orientated disease control. Sure, we have used antibiotics and we, more often than not, particularly with respiratory conditions, have treated large groups, but over the decades we have moved our clients from a spend per animal of over 50 per cent of costs being attributed to antibiotics to over 50 per cent being attributed to preventive treatments (wormers, vaccines, minerals and vitamins etc). The total spend per animal is the same, but the total antibiotic spend has decreased by around 70 per cent. I don't believe our practice is alone in this.

This ethical approach to make good livestock management and disease prevention a priority takes a long time to gain traction and effect. I am worried that many in the veterinary universities have not played this ‘long game’ and are unaware of the good work that has been done at the coal face. They need to remember that we progressed this through the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis and the two foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks.

But we, and every farmer I know, are looking for new graduates who want to play this ‘long game’. It has an ethical base – it takes socioeconomic, animal welfare and employee and employer needs into account. Of course, it challenges a new way of thinking for new graduates, because it's important to both consider the short and long-term outcomes for the animals in our care. But they are not alone, we too as experienced veterinary surgeons share that challenge and we do not expect instant success. Rome was not built in a day!

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