Sustainable animal agriculture: an opportunity for vets to influence innovation in breeding and technology

Posted on April 26, 2019 by Hayley Atkin

With the launch of the BVA position on UK sustainable animal agriculture, we asked the species specialist veterinary associations how innovative approaches to breeding and technology are being used to improve animal health and welfare, efficiency and mitigate environmental impact in their sectors.

The sustainable animal agriculture agenda presents the veterinary profession with a unique opportunity to influence the development of breeding and technology in an ethically responsible way. Innovative and ethical approaches to breeding and technology can not only improve the contributions of individual animals in production systems, but perhaps most importantly, also work to improve animal health and welfare and reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture.

Breeding

When we asked the species specialist veterinary associations about innovative approaches to breeding in their sectors, we received an encouraging range of examples. Examples included choosing breeds that are suitable for the local environment (e.g. the Herdwick sheep, which has adapted to live and rear young on the high fells of the Lake District); selecting animals with certain anatomical and conformational traits that eliminate the need for painful procedures (eg. polled animals); or animals that have been bred for increased disease resistance to achieve optimal animal health, welfare and environmental outcomes. Some of the species-specific examples we heard about are listed below:

Cattle

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) fund the collection of data on bulls used in the dairy industry and produce estimated breed values. This includes many factors regarding animal health and welfare and efficiency, ranging from ease of calving, confirmation, fertility, somatic cell count as well as yield and milk constituents.

Goats

Goat dairy producers are working with research institutions such as Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) to develop goat genomics to increase outputs from reduced inputs, whilst improving the health, welfare and longevity of the herd. These genomic breeding programmes deliver breeding values for yield, fat and protein, conformation, mastitis resistance, longevity and feed efficiency.

Poultry

Due to the highly centralised and integrated nature of the poultry sector, along with a relatively short generation interval, any changes in genetics can be rapidly and widely disseminated across both the poultry egg and meat sectors. Examples of such selection changes are; improved leg health and cardiovascular health in broiler chickens leading to lower mortality rates on broiler farms along with lower levels of ascites.

Pigs

The usefulness of routine collection of on-farm data to model and predict selection of pigs for disease resistance and disease tolerance has been emphasised as sustainable, economically feasible and desirable.

Sheep

Electronic Identification (EID) can support data collection for performance recording and estimated breeding values in sheep, allowing for the identification and sorting of sheep into different mating groups based on health and welfare outcomes and efficiency.

Technology

It's also exciting to think about the ways in which technology can be used and further developed as part of the sustainable animal agriculture agenda.

Our specialist species divisions told us several innovative uses of existing technologies that are being used to improve animal health and welfare outcomes, mitigate environmental impact and improve production efficiency:

Cattle

Dairy automation or automated milk harvesting systems are becoming more prevalent in the dairy industry to improve health and welfare outcomes alongside milk quality. There are also many examples of technologies that are used to monitor health and welfare parameters in cattle, such as the use of video monitoring, temperature monitoring, data input into phone applications etc.

Fish

Integrated multi-trophic aquaculture (IMTA) systems are used to recycle the by-products from one species (e.g. unused food, nutrients and energy) to become inputs for another, enabling a range of species to be farmed together at the same site (e.g. seaweed, shellfish and finfish).

Goats

Similarly to cattle, dairy automation or automated milk harvesting systems are becoming more prevalent in the dairy industry to improve health and welfare outcomes alongside milk quality, many dairy cow technologies are available and have been specifically adapted for goats. Further, electronic identification is allowing for the plotting of multiple data points per individual goat to build a picture of herd health, yield, production and genetic data that facilitates the delivery of sustainable herd improvements.

Pigs

Researchers are currently developing a 3D camera system to help identify the early signs of tail biting. 3D cameras automatically measure how pigs hold their tails (up or down), indicating early signs of tail injury, allowing early intervention and the prevention of tail biting outbreaks. 

Poultry

In the poultry sector, in-ovo sexing is currently being explored and developed so that male embryos that are not suitable for egg production can be destroyed before hatching. The poultry sector also widely utilises sensory technology to both better understand, and achieve the most appropriate environmental conditions to improve poultry welfare on farm.

Sheep

Electronic Identification (EID) in sheep has led to increased monitoring of individual animals allowing early detection of problems and targeted solutions. For example, with the use of EID, the Moredun Research Institute has carried out a research project focussing on lamb worming management to target individual requirements, which has the potential to slow anthelmintic resistance.

Not losing sight of the role of the vet

Within these exciting developments, it goes without saying that technology should not replace the regular physical assessment of behavioural and welfare needs or human interventions by skilled vets and keepers. Neither should technology or breeding compromise the welfare needs of the animals in question.

Vets are a crucial piece of the sustainability puzzle. Ultimately, the profession has an important role to play in advising how we can advance sustainable animal agriculture using innovation in breeding and technology, whilst at the same time safeguarding animal health and welfare.

Hayley Atkin

Written by Hayley Atkin

BVA Policy Officer

Hayley provides the secretariat to BVA Scottish Branch and works with BVA members to develop evidence-based policy spanning companion animals, animal disease surveillance and farm assurance.