Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Animal Health Ireland Strategic Plan 2015 to 2017: Discussion

4:00 pm

Mr. Joe O'Flaherty:

Animal Health Ireland, AHI, greatly welcomes the opportunity afforded by our attendance at the committee today to update members on its work. On the occasion of our previous attendance, in March 2015, AHI had just published its strategic plan for the period 2015 to 2017, and we availed of the opportunity at that meeting to set out in some detail for the members our ambitions for the next three years. As we move into the final year of the current strategic planning cycle, it is opportune to take stock of the progress that has been made and the challenges that remain to be addressed. My following remarks will provide an update on the AHI priority programmes: the bovine viral diarrhoea, BVD, eradication programme; the infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, IBR, eradication programme; the dairy cow mastitis reduction programme, CellCheck; the Johne's disease, JD, control programme; and the national abattoir surveillance programme, Beef HealthCheck. I do not propose to go into detail in this opening statement on our other priorities set out in the strategic plan, which deal with matters relating to the general corporate development of AHI, particularly our funding and governance models, but I remain at the disposition of the committee over the course of this session to respond to questions members may have on any aspect of our business.

The objective of the BVD programme is to eradicate BVD from the national cattle herd by the end of 2020. BVD is a disease of considerable economic importance to Irish farmers. A cost-benefit analysis commissioned by AHI places the losses associated with this infection at €102 million per annum. The compulsory phase of the programme, which began in 2013 following a successful pilot in 2012, targets the identification and removal of animals persistently infected with BVD virus from the national breeding herd through the testing of samples of ear tissue collected during the routine tagging process. Over the four years of the programme to date, this has resulted in a 75% reduction in the prevalence of PI calves born, from 0.66% in 2013 to 0.17% in 2016, translating into a benefit to farmers of over €65 million in that year after programme costs are taken into account. The proportion of herds with positive results has declined in parallel, from 11.3% in 2013 to 3.2% in 2016. Over this period, the proportion of the national breeding herd that has been assigned BVD status on the programme database has increased to almost 100%. This, together with the reduction in prevalence, has allowed 80% of the 83,000 breeding herds to acquire negative herd status, NHS, with the majority of the remaining herds only requiring test results for small numbers of animals to also acquire NHS. This is an important steppingstone toward national freedom, which, in addition, rewards herd owners through their ability to access lower-cost testing.

While the programme has made good progress to date, it has faced a number of challenges, which the members of the BVD programme implementation group continue to address. Principal among these has been the retention of PI animals by a minority of herd owners. The negative impact of this behaviour has been demonstrated in a number of studies and in the outputs of a sophisticated model that has been developed to inform the decision-making of the BVD technical working group and the implementation group. Based on recommendations of the technical working group, a number of changes have been made to the programme for 2017. These include a continuation of tag testing in 2017; an increased level of financial support for the removal of PI calves, but a reduction in the period for which these are available; automation of the placing of restrictions on herds that retain PI animals for more than five weeks, and notification of their neighbours to allow appropriate biosecurity measures to be put in place; a requirement for confirmatory testing to be conducted on blood samples collected by a veterinary practitioner, with the cost being met by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; and the requirement for all herds with positive results to undergo an investigation by a trained veterinary practitioner as part of the targeted advisory service on animal health, funded under the rural development programme.

A programme for the eradication of a highly infectious animal disease, such as BVD, requires a co-ordinated whole-of-island approach in order to be effective. In this regard, I am glad to say AHI has been in close collaboration with colleagues in Animal Health and Welfare NI and other relevant organisations in Northern Ireland since the inception of the programme in this jurisdiction. The BVD eradication programme in Northern Ireland, which entered a compulsory phase in 2016, shares the same design features as our programme, and there is a regular exchange of technical information between the two programmes. This close co-ordination creates a sound basis for the eradication of this damaging disease from the island of Ireland as a whole, within the timeframes to which I referred. Furthermore, it provides a template from which we can draw in designing and implementing programmes for the control of other economically important animal diseases on a whole-of-island basis.

The objective of the IBR programme is to eradicate IBR from the national herd, subject to a positive cost-benefit analysis and a mandate from AHI stakeholders. The IBR technical working group has previously developed a number of resources providing best practice on controlling and eradicating IBR at the individual herd level, and it is currently developing options to be included in a cost-benefit analysis of a national programme. In addition to the losses arising from both clinical and sub-clinical disease in dairy and beef herds, the current absence of an approved national programme poses a threat to live exports as other countries continue to put approved programmes in place and receive additional guarantees from the European Commission as a result. Most recently, the acquisition by Belgium of approved programme status has led to the almost complete cessation of Irish live cattle exports to this market.

The objective of the national dairy cow mastitis reduction programme, CellCheck, is to facilitate the Irish dairy industry to continue to improve milk quality such that 75% of the milk supplied by Irish farmers will have a somatic cell count of 200,000 cells per millilitre or less by the end of 2020. One of the priority activities of the CellCheck programme has been the establishment of a national bulk tank somatic cell count database. This database now contains data accounting for approximately 93% for the national milk pool for the three years 2013, 2014 and 2015. Analysis of this data shows a positive trend in the udder health of the national herd. The proportion of herds with an average somatic cell count of less than 200,000 cells per millilitre in 2015 was 60%, while the proportion of milk meeting this standard stood at 64%. In 2013, the analogous figures were 39% and 46%, respectively.

CellCheck farmer workshops have been included as one of the compulsory elements of the dairy knowledge transfer, KT, programme, a measure within the current rural development plan, with a target to deliver approximately 270 workshops within the first 18 months of the programme. Since the KT programme commenced in October 2016, approximately 120 workshops have been delivered. A second phase of delivery, which will commence once the spring calving peak has passed, should see the remaining workshops completed before the end of 2017. These workshops are designed to create an active learning environment for small groups of farmers. They are farm-based and interactive, with the delivery being provided by teams of CellCheck-trained local service providers. Participant feedback from these workshops has been very positive to date.

Training of additional service providers continues, with the objective of increasing the capacity of the programme to engage with farmers on mastitis control and to expand the network of service providers trained to deliver CellCheck farmer workshops. AHI is also working on the development of additional training modules to facilitate continued upskilling of service providers. Challenges for the future of the CellCheck programme include defining the role that the programme will play in contributing to Government action on the major societal challenge of antimicrobial resistance. This and a number of other key issues are currently being discussed under the chairmanship of AHI in the CellCheck implementation group.

Next is the JD control programme. A major pilot programme for the control of JD, led and co-ordinated by AHI, ran for three years, from 2014 to 2016, with the objective of determining the feasibility of establishing a future national voluntary control programme for this important disease. At the conclusion of the pilot programme, 1,214 dairy herds were enrolled. Farmers who participated in the pilot phase of the programme undertook a number of actions aimed at reducing the risk of the disease entering their herd, or at controlling its spread within their herd if the infection was already present. The principal actions undertaken were the completion of an on-farm risk assessment, led by veterinary practitioners who had been trained and approved by AHI, and the carrying out of annual testing of the eligible animals in the herd. In the pilot programme, the cost of the risk assessment visit was met in full by the Department, while participating milk processors provided a financial subsidy to partially offset the cost of testing.

Following a period of consultation, hosted by Animal Health Ireland in the final quarter of 2016, and subsequent meetings of the JD implementation group, there would appear to be general support among stakeholders for the continuation of national efforts to mitigate the risks relating to JD in Ireland. AHI has developed a draft business plan for such a programme and in an imminent meeting of the JD implementation group will seek the agreement of stakeholders on its commencement. The draft objectives of the programme are to provide additional reassurance to the marketplace regarding Ireland's effort to control JD and to mitigate against antimicrobial resistance; to enhance the ability of participating farmers to keep their herds clear of JD and to clear infection from their herds, if present; to improve calf health and farm biosecurity on participating farms; and to reduce the requirement for antimicrobial usage on participating farms, consequent to improvements in animal health and biosecurity.

The Beef HealthCheck programme, which was formally launched in 2015, has two objectives. The first is to develop tools to assist farmers and their veterinary practitioners to control losses due to liver fluke and pneumonia through the capturing, analysis and reporting of abattoir data. The second is to contribute to the development by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, of economic breeding indexes that incorporate health and disease data.

Working closely with the Department, Meat Industry Ireland, Veterinary Ireland and ICBF, AHI has developed a harmonised system for recording liver and lung lesions in slaughtered cattle and reporting the information back to farmers. Relevant information is captured in meat plants by the temporary veterinary inspectors, who record it on touchscreens situated at the veterinary inspection points on the factory floor.

For several months now, the information generated by the system has been reported back to farmers by means of colour-coded paper-based report. The paper-based reports are now being supplemented by a new system, hosted on the ICBF database, which allows farmers to view the Beef HealthCheck information for their herd online. This information can also be shared with the farmer's veterinary practitioner, facilitating herd health planning. The scope of this programme, currently covering 65% of the national beef kill, and its ability to report key animal health outcomes in close to real time, provides Irish farmers and their vets with a unique facility, unmatched, to my knowledge, in any of the countries with which we compete in the international marketplace.

I acknowledge the financial and other support AHI receives form all its members and stakeholders, without which we would be unable to deliver on behalf of the industry. I am proud of the strong record of achievement of this organisation over the years since its establishment in 2009 and I believe that the continuing support of our stakeholders bears testament to the fact that AHI has demonstrated a real contribution to the national effort to make farming and the agrifood sector in Ireland more profitable and sustainable. I and my colleagues look forward to engaging with the committee on any of the matters outlined in my opening remarks and any other aspect of our work.


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