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‘Some of what was shown suggest illegality, we are investigating that’

Editor of Irish Farmers Monthly, Matt O’Keeffe discussed a wide variety of issues with Martin Blake, chief veterinary officer (CVO) at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), when they met recently

Animal movements between Ireland and the UK, was first on the list and the CVO confirmed that these have continued to operate well despite Brexit: “Intra-community movement of animals always required certification and even though Britain is outside the EU now, that regulatory system still applies. There were big changes on the import side for animal products from Britain. A lot of infrastructure and resources had to be deployed at our border control posts. So, there were impacts on our inspection side as well as on industry. At this stage, things have settled down and people have adapted to the changes,” he says.
At the end of October 2023, the UK authorities are planning to enforce their import controls in a more systematic way across all food products, in particular. Martin explains the impact of this: “That will require significant additional investment and time by our exporters and will need us to provide the extra export certification necessary. Apart from final confirmation of requirements we are ready for the changes coming. Electronic certification has simplified the system and will help when these new UK procedures are finally implemented.”

Keeping the biosecurity gates closed

The conversation moves to the complex topic of biosecurity on farms. Although certainly not a new phenomenon, more frequent outbreaks of Avian influenza, and increased prevalence of African swine fever across Europe, have hammered home the importance of biosecurity on our farms. And we all have a role to play in promoting better practices. Martin explained: “There are actions that can be taken at a national level as well as regionally, and at farm level. In the context of importing animals, there are certain guarantees we have in place to protect against diseases. There are diseases for which there is no certification in place, but we maintain biosecurity measures to protect against them entering. Bird diseases are difficult to control for obvious reasons, so protection must be localised, on farms, for instance.
“We [DAFM] coordinate our biosecurity strategy with industry, taking into account all the layers such as border controls and certification guarantees, but often it’s the last few hundred metres that are critical and farmers need to be constantly vigilant.”

BVD eradication almost there

Huge strides have been made in Ireland in relation to the eradication of bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD). According to Animal Health Ireland (AHI), currently 95.8 per cent of breeding herds and 97.2 per cent of all herds have negative herd status (NHS). The stats are very positive but we have not yet reached a BVD-free status. Martin comments: “Because of the efforts of farmers and vets we have made huge progress. We don’t want to restrict industry to the extent that trade cannot happen, but, ultimately, movement of animals and/or people will move disease. The challenge as we near final BVD eradication, is to find those residual disease pockets and that requires an even greater effort.
“Reduced vaccination can allow spread and where there is a threat of neighbourhood spread, that needs to be protected against. I believe that by the end of 2023, we will have targeted the last remaining herds with positive results.”
However, he cautions that the big challenge arises when we have reached a disease-free status. “This will require ongoing surveillance given that confirmation of disease-free status will require the ending of vaccination. That’s a big decision to make,” he says.
Other disease-eradication/control targets, such as those for infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) are in motion: “IBR control is important because several EU countries with which we trade, are well advanced in IBR eradication measures. It is a difficult and costly process, and we need to progress the options available, along with AHI and other interested parties.”


In June 2023, the National Genotyping Programme opened for applications making Ireland the first country in the world to provide a DNA-verified traceability system. This, according to Teagasc, will provide a huge opportunity for both the dairy and beef industry to increase its sustainability credentials on a global scale. The National Genotyping Programme was developed on a cost-sharing model between the programme partners, consisting of the DAFM, Dairy Industry Ireland (DII), Meat Industry Ireland (MII) and participating farmers. The first year of the programme will be funded by the Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR). Martin believes this is a valuable strategy: “It provides valuable information on which to make decisions around optimising output and production on farms, while at the same time minimising risks around breeding strategies. A big challenge on the bovine side is the integration of the dairy and beef sectors. We have made significant progress with the Dairy Beef Index (DBI) and Commercial Beef Value (CBV) in relation to trying to identify the value of calves being produced on the dairy side. This will allow optimum choices to be made and will drive better integration between dairy and beef. Genotyping also improves traceability and assurance of parentage.
“There are also potential benefits for breeding more carbon-efficient animals. There are significant variations even within breeds in terms of genotype traits. Ultimately, there are benefits for food safety, animal health and welfare, climate and farm profitability.”

Calf care

Issues around calf health and welfare, specifically dairy-bull calves, were highlighted recently in the RTÉ Investigates documentary that aired some weeks ago. Commenting on the programme’s disclosures, the CVO said: “Some of what was shown suggest illegality by certain people and we are investigating that. We carry out checks on marts and farms and our general assessment is that Irish farming and the care of animals are good. Mortality levels are better than most other comparable countries.
“Animal transport over long distances is being discussed at EU level. It may well be that the standards set in 2004 are no longer adequate in the eyes of society. Science in relation to animal welfare has moved on. We review, annually, the performance in relation to animal exports and include additional controls where necessary. If there are enforcement issues, we will examine that. The vast bulk of people are compliant, and we will take action where this is not found to be the case,” he says.

A life worth living

“Almost all farmers look after their animals very well,” he continues. “Each animal, to quote a recent comment, has a life worth living. Each farmer must ensure than any animal bred has a purpose. It cannot be a by-product with no value. Killing animals within hours of birth does not sit well with society, generally. That has not been a common practice in Ireland.

"It is important that people understand their responsibilities in relation to managing animal welfare throughout the animal’s life and we need to regularly evaluate our production systems with that in mind. The male dairy-bred calf is a case in point. The evolution of the DBI, sexed semen, and CBV will all help,” he says.

Knowledge is valuable

The contentious National Veterinary Prescription Database has been established, currently on a voluntary basis, but soon to be mandatory under pending legislation. Martin explains: “The Veterinary Medications Act has passed through the Oireachtas, and statutory instruments will now be brought forward to give effect to the Act. One of those will be to make the database compulsory. All of this will feed into our efforts to curb antimicrobial resistance (AMR). It will also provide greater reassurance in the marketplace in relation to animal medication and resistance. The food industry exists within society and we have to be conscious of the values and expectations of society in relation to the medication of

animals. There are also EU commitments to be considered with medicines and pesticides.”
Can all of this be managed without mandatory milk recording, he is asked. “Recording brings huge benefits not only for reducing AMR. It provides so much information to manage a herd optimally. It allows breeding intervention, the maintenance of quality standards and control of cell counts, to consider a few. There is encouragement of recording across the industry for a multitude of positive benefits. We are challenged under EU protocols to reduce antimicrobial use by 50 per cent by 2030 and progress is being made across the bovine and pig sectors. However, progress in reducing somatic cell counts in herds has stalled and targeted advisory resources are in place to assist in getting the figures down further.”

High tech

Technology has a huge role to play in assisting in animal welfare and health protection, Martin agrees: “A healthy cow will optimise her production, and animal monitoring, for instance, can identify where sub-clinical disease is impacting on that optimal performance. A technology that helps improve nutrition, health, lameness, comfort, feed intake, has a potential role.
“In diagnostics, we are starting to use more whole genome sequencing across herds as well as domestic fowl and wildlife, in the context of trying to understand developments, for instance, in disease transmission. It is also valuable in food traceability to trace food contamination outbreaks, the origin and mode of movement, even across countries. Those examples show how relevant and important novel technologies can and will be in the whole food area.”