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Riding on the red tractor

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01 May 2017, at 1:00am

RICHARD GARD reports on the achievements so far of the food assurance scheme

RED TRACTOR IS A 21st CENTURY DEVELOPMENT that is a major influence for farmers and veterinary surgeons. Its primary achievement is raising the profile of British farm produce for quality and animal welfare. There are other detailed outcomes and these are being interrogated and highlighted to deliver a programme of continuous improvement. An intensive consultation has been taking place and the responses are being considered by the Technical Advisory Committees. There are nearly 70 individuals making up the five committees of Beef & Lamb, Dairy, Pigs, Poultry and Fresh produce, with another group concerned with Crops & Sugar Beet. Veterinary surgeons are represented within the animal sectors. Additionally, there are a further 70 (or thereabouts) people who make up the sector boards with overarching management and staff. All the major players associated with food production from plough to plate are linked to Red Tractor. Red Tractor Assurance is a not-forprofit organisation. Each producer pays to belong to its production sector – produce buyers are increasingly insisting on membership. Every 18 months, a farm is visited by an independent assessor who compares the farm performance with the standard that is laid down in considerable detail. Within the dairy sector it is noted that 95% of milk producers are Red Tractor Assured. Membership by pork producers is even higher and vets have to be registered with the scheme. From 1st October 2017, not only will vets be registered but they have to be members of the Pig Veterinary Society. There has been a difference between vets involved with the scheme and vets carrying out welfare assessments, but no more. There are detailed checks throughout assurance including an online Pig Veterinary Society membership checker with the vet membership number recorded on the assessment forms. The Red Tractor Assurance Scheme is therefore part of Assured Food Standards and there are promotions and logos highlighting various aspects of the programme. Open Farm Sunday is due to take place on 11th June and farmers are encouraged to “show what farming is about so that consumers value and support the work you do”. There is a Red Tractor Marketing Toolkit and an addition for this year is a “giant trailer sticker”. The farmer is also encouraged to hire a Massey Ferguson tractor for the day with suitable livery to promote events. The themes are “Trust The Tractor” and “Great Food, Great Farming”. It is considered that the Red Tractor logo is recognised by consumers and farmers are being asked to acknowledge that Red Tractor is a brand “the world can believe in”. In the past, there has been considerable emphasis on comparisons with other European country standards and this will continue, but the current export speak is looking further afield. Much is made of the respect given to UK produce by Asia, due to the recognition and confidence that Red Tractor offers to buyers. Confidence in the farm systems and production details that lead to the food produced is very much related to veterinary involvement. A recent report states that the “regular interface between veterinarian and client is the most important relationship to encourage positive health and welfare improvements”.

Science-based evidence 

The Real Welfare report on measuring welfare outcomes in pigs (2013-2016) provides “science-based evidence to show where industry standards were strong and to identify opportunities for continuous improvement”. From quarterly audited veterinary visits, involving animal observations of 5.5 million pigs on 1,928 farm units with a total animal throughput of 13.5 million pigs, a warts-and-all assessment of welfare is available for public perusal. Eighty-nine veterinary practices were involved and continue to assess the pigs for five objective and repeatable measures of: Hospitalisation, Lameness, Tail Damage, Body Marks and Environmental Enrichment. The findings are reported to the farmer and a rolling average of 365 days indicates whether improvements are taking place. In most cases each farm has progressed with an improvement in the standards over the three years. Animals
that have been placed in treatment/ hospital pens prior to the assessment are excluded, but pigs needing hospitalisation are indicative of the ability of stockmen to identify sick or injured pigs. The levels fell each year with 75% of herds having no pigs requiring action. It is noted that as well as preventing further production losses and improving recovery rates with early attention, there is a marked improvement in staff morale. The Chief Veterinary Officer has reviewed the report and concluded
that the way forward is to increase the provision of suitable environmental enrichment to reduce the amount of tail docking and to prevent tail biting. As the assessments progressed, the number of pens with undocked tails increased, with 75% of farms
recording no severe tail damage and over 50% no visible mild tail damage. The emphasis is in allowing pigs to show natural behaviour, which includes sustained exploration of the pen. Focuses include straw, alternatives to pen fittings to be chewed, avoiding pigs slipping and treading on one another and barging into gates, with attention to surfaces and other design and management aspects. All farmers appear to be gaining information
from the best assessed herds. The veterinary assessments were
analysed and collated by Newcastle University and published in Animal (Cambridge University Press). AHDB Pork has produced a publication for general readership (pork.ahdb. org.uk/media/273110/real-welfarereport- 2017.pdf). An analysis of the data from dairy herds is currently being prepared by Dr Siobhan Mullan at the University of Bristol. A publication is due and the
findings will be of great interest to all involved throughout the industry. The annual veterinary visit forms part of the herd health and performance review and the aim is to improve identified issues. The consultation has already led to a tightening up of standards. Although the assessor visits the farm every 18 months, the veterinary assessment has to be annual. New manuals are due to be sent to farmers in July and the new standards will apply from October. Within each standard there are requirements that have to be corrected within 28 days and recommendations which are to be
acted on over time. The BCVA has sent members a preview of the dairy changes, which includes adding a documented colostrum policy, restricting Quaternary Ammonium Compounds and highlighting the need for clean water.

Antibiotics standards tightening

Throughout the livestock industry, standards are tightening on the use and selection of antibiotics. Training of farm staff by veterinary surgeons is going to increase and records of products and treatments interrogated. For pig farmers there will be a
six-week period after the end of each quarter by which they are expected to upload their antibiotic usage. Work is ongoing to develop some means of recording digitally and accurately the
antibiotic details for other production sectors. The basis for assessment on many farms is the health plan and the details have gradually been increased over the years. Each veterinary annual
assessment is expected to compare actual performance with the plan and to include involvement with national disease control programmes. However, there seem to be many improvements to be tackled in most sectors and veterinary surgeons will continue to act in the best interests of their clients. It seems certain that there
will be an increasing involvement with veterinary surgeons and Red Tractor Assurance.