Ethics and the 'timorous' vets

01 December 2016, at 12:00am

Richard Gard reports from the 2016 congress of the British Cattle Veterinary Association.

THERE WAS CONSIDERABLE SOUL-SEARCHING at the BCVA congress with veterinary surgeons being directed to consider how they approach clients. 

Comments arising from research indicate that “vets talk too much”, “vets need to better understand what really motivates an individual farmer”, “vets should not tell farmers what to do”, “the role of the vet in future will be as an on-farm coach”. 

As usual at this congress, there were parallel streams and it was not possible to attend more than a few presentations. The speakers give their own views and it is up to each delegate to sift and sort for take-home messages.

In consideration of clinical outcomes, there was an impassioned view that vets are over-regulated and it is making vets “more timorous” with on-farm clinical judgements.

The BCVA president, Neil Blake, opened the congress and welcomed Professor Temple Grandin from Colorado State University who presented a practical approach to optimising cattle welfare.

Considerable emphasis was placed on everyone involved with farmed animals becoming a better observer. Animals should be given time to investigate distractions such as shadows, a coat on a fence and parked vehicles near the handling area. Heifers need to have time to familiarise themselves with new facilities and first impressions are very important.

Memories are specific, he said, and a coloured coat is not the same as a tarpaulin. Animals are inquisitive and voluntarily approach new things but become stressed if novel items are suddenly introduced.

Small movements are required around animals with no yelling or screaming – and don’t stand within the flight zone. Studies have shown that agitated animals gain less weight and forcing animals increases cortisol levels. Voluntary co-operation from a group is the aim.

In evaluating animal welfare, it is relevant to manage what can be measured, said Prof. Grandin. An objective scoring numerical system means that standards are not subject to different interpretation by individuals. Terms like “properly”, “adequate” and “sufficient” should be banned from the animal welfare vocabulary!

Facility designs and management should measure outcomes, e.g. falling animals, running, vocalisation and frequency of use of an electric prod, that are directly observable and not a paperwork audit. 

Welfare is often compromised by broken equipment. Animals do not easily show pain and discomfort when being watched, related to not telling a predator that they are hurting. Cameras reveal animal distress more accurately.

Utilising pictures, Prof. Grandin emphasised many points and answered questions from the delegates. If there is more than one handling facility on a farm, make the race turn the same way. Facilities should be level, not uphill or downhill. Tongue rolling could be genetically based or due to a lack of roughage. Total mixed rations are eaten too quickly whereas cattle in the wild would graze all day.

Urine drinking is abnormal behaviour and could be linked to a lack of roughage but is learned behaviour and difficult to stop. Remove the animal from the group so that others are not trained in the behaviour. In a crush, if the animal is paddling and clawing at the sides, it is likely that the sides are not straight down. A V shape makes it less easy for the animal to stand in the crush. Excessive pressure from neck restraint in a crush or stun box leads to vocalisation.

In summary, Prof. Grandin considers that good stock handling needs more respect as it is a skilled job. (Further information and a listing of publications and books are available at www.grandin.cow).

Welfare assessment

Professor David Main from the University of Bristol discussed the impact on the dairy industry from welfare assessment in farm assurance schemes. One of the considerations is the role of the assessor in driving change.

The Red Tractor assessors are using a scoring system which is intended to actively promote best practice but not offering specific farm solutions.

The observations about the future approach for veterinary surgeons to promote changing practices on-farm have arisen from studies that also involve motivational interviewing. Farmer action groups, with a host farm, have been shown to assist in change of antibiotic use through medicine audits. 

Engaging farmers in research has led from group discussions and group involvement. Good life opportunities are a way forward, with ways of measuring good practice leading to greater farmer and veterinary satisfaction. Positive animal welfare arises from good life discussions.

He suggested that veterinary surgeons could adopt “sophisticated communication skills” in promoting best welfare practice among clients. Bristol university is developing understanding and training to accelerate animal welfare achievements.

Ethics of welfare

An emotive discussion was led by Jules Dare, Mark Howells and Pete Cargill in consideration of the ethics of welfare versus the SPC (summary of product characteristics).

The question was raised as to whether the vet on the farm with an animal to be treated could rely on an SPC to give sufficient guidance. There was somewhat of an age difference in that the more recently qualified felt that the SPC could be relied upon whereas older heads indicated that the SPC needed interpretation within the context of the clinical situation.

The comment about timorous vets arose from situations with new graduates being reluctant to make their own judgement. There was a conclusion: “As long as food safety isn’t an issue, we should be pragmatic and logical and be prepared to justify our actions and defend them.” There seems to be little substitute for experience.

'Send a cow' support

Throughout the coming year – its 50th – the BCVA will be raising support and funding for the Send a Cow ( organisation. Richie Alford and Becky Moorcroft were present throughout the congress and discussed current projects and developments with individuals as well as presenting to a full lecture room.

Graham Duncanson is part way through his 8,000-mile fund-raising cycle ride and is being assisted by communities involved with Send a Cow as he crosses Africa. He would welcome some company and offers of accommodation ( A ride through Rwanda from 3rd to 11th June 2017 is being arranged and anyone interested in participating should contact

Richie Alford explained that after the civil war in Uganda in 1988, farmers in the UK donated heifers and over the next eight years 300 in-calf heifers were sent. However, much has been learnt and Send a Cow is no longer a UK livestock placement programme. The effort now is to strengthen the way that families work together, involving rural women and adapting local situations for land use and building businesses.

East Africa produces more milk than New Zealand, with the milk being available at a local level and low individual cow production.

Three-year training programmes see income grow from $234 to $1,000 per year. One cow provides 3,000 litres per annum which provides milk for the family, income from the sale of the surplus, and manure to improve crop yields.

Some 300,000 individuals are being helped and the aim is to achieve one million by 2020.

It has taken 25 years to develop an effective programme. Red breeds are more successful than black and whites with greater heat tolerance, better fertility and better feed conversion. Data have been collected on cross-bred cow yields within different local farming systems and it is important to fit the cow to the farm.

Some farmers are being trained as “peer farmers” to go out to and help others. This pass-on principle helps build thriving communities and enables the organisation to work cost-effectively. In 2015, total charitable expenditure increased to £5.4 million. Details of initiatives in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Lesotho, Kenya and Zambia are within the annual review available from the charity.