Colours have been magnificent this November as leaves hang on

THE wonderful November weather continues; foggy in the mornings, but clearing up beautifully for a sunny day. With temperatures that are well above what we would expect at this time of year, it is certainly very different from last year. The colours are magnificent as the leaves hang on to the branches, and some of the oaks are still quite green. The grass is still growing, and at this rate our heifers could stay out well into December if ground conditions allow.

I must say that making you own crushed concrete on site is rather satisfying. By modifying our cattle housing, we did break up a great deal of 30 year old concrete, resulting in a great heap of large slabs, which are no good to man or beast. The hire of a concrete crusher for one day (expensive), rapidly turned this ugly mountain of slabs into a large pile of very nice, and extremely useful crushed concrete. It is quite amazing how such a machine pulverizes large slabs into uniform particles, which are ideal for preparing ground for more concrete, or as a hard standing.

*Last Friday was ‘Antibiotic Awareness Day’. I was in Brussels as vice chairman of the COPA animal health and welfare working party (representing 30 million farmers and their families), and antimicrobial resistance is something we often have on our agenda, as we grapple with the challenge of producing enough food for a rapidly growing population, whilst reducing the use of antibiotics in farm animals. We are also there to protect agriculture from becoming a scapegoat to what is essentially a human medicine problem; antimicrobial resistance.

These amazing drugs which have saved millions of lives are constantly under threat of resistance. This is not only a profound worry for everyone, but is very difficult to tackle effectively. Mother Nature is extremely adaptive, and not long after a new drug is discovered, resistance begins to build. Some countries have alarming levels of antimicrobial resistance, and farm animals and their husbandry have a part to play.

When you look at our ‘ecosystem’ and the interaction between people, pets, production animals, produce and wildlife; you have a pretty good cross infection mix. Add extensive travel to that mix, and we begin to see the full picture. Before we get carried away with this being a modern world problem, I think it worth mentioning that rigorous authenticated DNA from 30,000 year old Beringian permafrost sediments and the identification of a highly diverse collection of genes encoding resistance to tetracycline and glycopeptides antibiotics (and others), shows that antibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon that predates the modern selective pressure of clinical antibiotic use. Development of antimicrobial resistance is therefore independent of antimicrobial use.

It is more than 70 years since Fleming discovered ‘penicillin’, and at the time he stated that ‘Thoughtless use of penicillin for a man with a sore throat results in the death of another, suffering from pneumonia’. If we look at total outpatient antibiotic use in 33 European countries, we see that Greece and Cyprus have by far the greater use, with Switzerland the lowest and the UK below average; as we have moved from treatment for life threatening infection only, to common use.

It is important that we have a holistic approach to this problem, as 75 per cent of emerging human diseases are passed from animals and 60 per cent of infectious animal diseases can cause human disease. That is why it is so important not to have a knee jerk reaction to the easy target of antimicrobial use on farm, where legislation would be so much easier than if restrictions were placed on human prescriptions; or indeed pets. There is of course a need for prudent use on farms, but antibiotic resistance is essentially akin to an arms race, where we develop new drugs and resistance to those drugs builds very rapidly.

Looking at available data, it becomes clear how big this problem is. 50% of antibiotic use in humans is not correct. Some of that is due to wrong diagnosis, but in the main it is the pressure on doctors to prescribe by patients who expect treatment. Looking for extremes, the data on India is horrific, with 80 per cent antimicrobial resistance levels. Many doctors seem to give up on the struggle to change things when the country is so corrupt (although the results for the 40 per cent of private hospitals are quite good). Antibiotics can be bought from the same stall as Coca-Cola and candy. However, it is easy to judge when the lack of any health care in many regions of the country means that the only hope of treating an injury or illness is to buy from these stalls. Looking again at the trends in Europe, it is clear that some countries are making real progress. Success is led by the Scandinavian countries as they carefully target antimicrobial use these days, and as the old adage goes; if you can measure it – you can improve it. The UK has made good progress too (despite what the media would have you believe), with spectacular reductions in MRSA infections; this has been brought about in the main by improved hygiene and cleanliness (no substitute for basics).

*Overall, on farm use needs to improve across Europe as we have an important part to play in this battle against resistance. Herd health planning, in other words prevention, needs to be the cornerstone of our defence, which highlights good practice and planning. There is a progressive move to remove the profit element from sale of antibiotics; at a stroke removing any incentive for farm vets to prescribe. Prophylactic use is of concern to many, but is essential when used correctly, but our overall aim in order to play our part must be to reduce use on farms, generally.

Good levels of animal health and welfare not only reduces disease risks, but it minimizes production losses and waste. Whether we are looking at water use, production methods, pesticide use, environmental measures or health and welfare; it all fits into the much bigger picture of climate smart farming systems, which is the only way to minimise our impact on the planet whilst meeting the challenge of rapidly rising population.

If you look at the figures (and disregard John Humphreys who claims always weekly on the ‘Today’ programme, that we do not make anything in this country anymore), you will see that British agriculture has increased its output from £15 to £20 million in the last five years, and our gross added value has been rising 6.2 per cent year on year.

Food exports this year will show their seventh annual increase; up 13 per cent on the same period last year. George Osborne would kill for these figures in the national economy, and it is therefore essential that agriculture is treated according to its results, and not as a cottage industry.