Antibiotics back the news

recent report from the OECD suggests that super-bug infections will kill around 2.4 million people across Europe, North America and Australia by 2050 unless more is done to limit drug-resistant super bugs. Health officials in England launched a campaign to try to prevent people from asking for the drugs when they do not need them. These developments are likely to increase the pressure on the livestock sector to reduce the use of antibiotics and the risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

The use of antibiotics in livestock has been back in the news in both the US and the UK in the light of contrasting data on farm antibiotic use. Antibiotic use in the US pig sector is still at “unacceptable” levels according to recent data and this has prompted a fresh debate on the role of antibiotics in agriculture. Meanwhile in the UK sales of antibiotics for animals have fallen to their lowest levels since 1993 with a fall of 18% between 2016 and 2017. According to The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Christine Middlemiss, this is the result of year-on-year improvement in training, stewardship, stockmanship and disease control.

Tests on thousands of meat samples carried out by the US Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) show that farm animals are still being dosed with powerful antibiotics classified as “critically important” to human health. Activists claim that US farmers are still able to use antibiotics targeted by the ban in much the same way today as they could beforehand, including drugs previously used for growth promotion. Meanwhile the industry has claimed that it is difficult to make proper conclusions from the data so far which only indicate the presence of antibiotics, but not why they were administered.

The 2017 FDA regulations brought the US in line with rules the EU has had in place for years; the use of antibiotics as growth promoters was banned inside the EU in 2006 but it took years to effectively reduce the use of these drugs, thus it will take time for the US legislation to have an impact. Accurate data on antibiotic use in farm animals is crucial in the fight against antibiotic resistance, and the preservation of antibiotics for human health, it’s also important to understand why antibiotics have been administered, as well as how much. The FDA is plans to release data on pharmaceutical sales for animal antibiotics for 2017 this December, which will give more indication as to how well or not the new regulations are working.

 However, on the 25th October the EU parliament banned the prophylactic use of antibiotics in agriculture, this goes further than the existing ban on the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter which can into force in 2006. The UK says it intends to implement the provisions of the new legislation, despite Brexit and having voiced concerns over the legislation. However the US refuses to accept that the EU legislation completely bans preventative treatments. The UK Government’s Veterinary Medicines Directorate says the legislation is ambiguous and does not restrict the administration of preventative treatments to individual animals. The UK Minister, Michael Gove said that the government will “work constructively with stakeholders to agree how these restrictions can be implemented in practice”. Whatever the outcome  it is clear that AMR is one thing livestock farmers and many others will need to be concerned about for some time to come.

Augmented Reality

One area of new technology which may start to make an impact on agriculture is augmented reality (AR).  AR allows you to overlay sensor data, previous crop imagery or some other information over visual reality. For example a set of glasses or goggles that could superimpose another image or computer generated image on top of reality, alternatively images can be superimposed onto a mobile phone camera screen.

How a farmer might use AR goggles:


A lot of AR technology is derived from the computer games industry, with perhaps the best known example being the Pokemon Go craze of a couple of years ago. Could such a technology have a significant use in agriculture? Agricultural engineers such as Agco are already using AR technology within their own factories. Agco factory workers in Jackson, Minnesota, use AR glasses that display diagrams and images of instructions to help them conduct quality checks on tractors and chemical sprayers. AR can also be used as a tool to market to farmers and could also be used to help buy and sell livestock or for training.

But how could farmers themselves use the technology to improve farm management?

The technology can be easily linked to drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), smart phones, or could be mounted within the cabs of tractors and other mobile machinery.  It has been suggested for example that a UAV linked to a AR headset would allow a farmer to easily identify problem areas within a crop. UAVs with a 360 degree camera could provide agronomists with a virtual tour of the crop and help with management. For Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs correct pest identification is often critical to selecting the right control methods, and linking AR technology to entomology and pest control data could prove to be a useful tool.

Although much of the technology is still at the development stage, one example already available is a free mobile app released by Michael Scobie a research engineer with the National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture at the University of Southern Queensland. The app allows farmers to schedule irrigation using a mobile phone as a view finder, and the app calculates how much water the crop is using, and how much needs to be applied and when.

To be more than just a gimmick AR technology must be able to provide farmers with real actionable information and real economic benefits. The fact that AR applications can be easily integrated with familiar pieces of technology is a significant advantage.


UAVs and Livestock

The Agricultural Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) market is expected to grow to approximately USD 4.3 Billion by 2022, with growth at an annual rate of 27% between 2016 and 2022. However the use of UAVs in livestock farming has generally lagged behind that of crop farming. However a number of livestock farmers have begun to find a use for UAVs on their farms. These uses include:

  • Pasture management;
  • Stock monitoring and herding;
  • Checking fences and infrastructure.

One application is to assist with pasture management, as with arable cropping NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index) scanners can provide data on water stress, dry matter and can help identifying areas of weed infestation. UAVs can also be used to monitor livestock, especially in extensive operations, where sheep and cattle are grazing on widespread areas. Thermal imaging camera’s help can in locating lost animals, identifying sick or injured animals. The combination of a UAV with RFID tagging technology could provide farmers with an accurate means to count and track individual animals from the air. UAVs could also help with predator control or domestic dog attacks and with security. Some farmers have tried using drones for herding, and although in some cases animals become accustomed to the presence of a drone – and do not move, the addition of a siren can move animals effectively. It may be that other new technology such as virtual fencing may provide a more effective way to move animals around.

Using drones to check fences and water troughs can save time, by eliminating the need to physically check the whole farm, and when problems are identified the correct tools, materials and equipment for repairs can be taken straight to the problem location, making repairs more efficient. UAVs can save farmers time, and at a time when labour is in short supply on many farms, this could prove to be a deciding factor.

Despite all this the traditional sheep dog is unlikely to disappear from many farms soon. Whilst the costs of UAV systems has come down significantly,  the aviation regulations in many countries still limit the commercial use of drones to line of sight flights, which is likely to be a significant limiting factor for many extensive livestock farms. Other limitations include battery life, which limits the typical flight time for small drones to around 25 minutes. There is currently limited information available as to whether the use of drones can have any real financial benefits on stock farms.  As with crop farming UAVs allow for the collection of more and more data, however the real challenge for farmers is how to make the best use of that data.



Boost for Livestock Research

Recent anti-meat and dairy campaigns during January have prompted some debate within the farming sector on the long term future of the livestock sector, with the topic debated at the Oxford farming conference. The impact of “Veganuary” on meat consumption patterns remains unclear, however it is in developing markets where the greatest growth in consumption of animal protein is taking place. Improved incomes leads to increased demand for a better quality diet – with more meat and dairy.  This provides also opportunities for many in rural areas to supply that demand. According to the latest OECD forecasts consumption of fresh dairy products per capita is expected to grow at a rate of 1.9% p.a. over the next ten in developing countries compared to a decline of 0.04% p.a. in developed countries.

Livestock play a vital role in the farming systems and economies of many developing countries, with many of the Worlds poor dependent on their animals for their food and livelihoods. However the productivity of farm animals in many developing countries is poor, due to poor genetics, the impacts of livestock disease and poor veterinary services.

Research into livestock health and productivity in developing countries has received a boost with the announcement of increased funding for research into livestock from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The announcement made by Bill Gates at an event in Edinburgh last week, will see an extra £28m go to the Edinburgh-based Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines (GALVmed). GALVmed exists to make livestock vaccines, medicines and diagnostics accessible and affordable to the millions in developing countries for whom livestock is a lifeline, according to the charity more than 900 million human lives depend on healthy livestock. At the same time DFID/UK Aid is providing £4 million for genetics and health research to aid sustainable livestock production in Africa.

This funding will go to The Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health (CTLGH) a joint venture launched by three partners – the Roslin Institute of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) based in Nairobi. The Centre will apply most recent scientific advances in genetics and genomics that have led to substantial gains in livestock productivity in temperate zones to the problems of livestock productivity in tropical environments, for the benefit of smallholder dairy and poultry farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

Improving the productivity of livestock in developing countries will have a number of benefits, firstly by helping to meet the increasing global demand for animal protein, helping to alleviate poverty in developing countries, and also to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit of animal protein produced.






Future Tractor Power

The basic design of the tractor – the workhorse of agriculture, has remained little changed since the days of Harry Ferguson, new technology e.g. precision systems and GPS have been added, but some fundamentals remain e.g. the basic chassis design and three point linkage, a drivers seat, and a diesel engine. That however may soon change.

There has been some debate in the UK  about proposals to  phase out diesel powered cars, and the introduction of driver-less lorries onto our roads, but what about about tractors?  It is likely that driver-less tractors will be more readily accepted off-road, many agricultural engineers are already developing driver-less technology, and farming is likely to be in the vanguard of industries adopting driver-less technology, but what will power these machines?

New Holland Agriculture, a global agricultural equipment brand of CNH Industrial N.V has recently unveiled a methane powered concept tractor. The companies commercial vehicles subsidiary Iveco is already producing methane powered trucks and buses. The company claims that the engine is able to deliver a maximum 180hp and maximum torque of 740Nm, the same level of performance as an equivalent diesel power plant.  The concept adapts existing technology, and is fitted to a standard tractor chassis, which means it simply looks and drives like a conventional diesel powered tractor. The company claim that the cost of buying one is likely to be the same. Total fuel capacity is 52kg of compressed methane fitted into nine tanks around the tractor; this is claimed to be enough for around six hours of work depending on the type of activity with re-fuelling taking around the same time to fill as with diesel.

The company claims that methane engines could allow farmers to spearhead a move towards renewable powered vehicles. Bio-methane could be produced on farm using waste crop material and animal manure, allowing farming businesses to gain greater energy independence, they could also sell bio-methane to others. Testing on farms in the UK, has found that methane powered tractors could reduce fuel costs by around 25-40%, and reduce pollutant emissions by up to 80%.

Adapting existing technology is likely to be a key advantage, a machine that looks and performs identically to conventional diesel powered tractors will more easily gain acceptance with farmers. Savings in running costs will be another key advantage.  Once driver-less technology is more commercially ready, new machines could easily use methane powered engines. The key barrier to uptake is likely to be the infrastructure required, but the number of on farm bio-gas plants is increasing, and the future success of the machine is likely to depend on the technologies actual performance on farms.


Market Developments 2017/2018

The latest WASDE (World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates) from the USDA provides an initial assessment of the agricultural outlook for 2017/2018.  Global wheat supplies are projected to decline fractionally as higher beginning stocks are more than offset by a production decline following last year’s record. Global wheat production is now projected at 737.8 million tons, the second highest total on record. The FAO World food price index fell for the 3rd consecutive month in April – driven by expectations of increased supply of key staples, but remains 10% higher than April 2016. U.S wheat production for 2017/18 is projected at 1,820 million bushels, down nearly 500 million bushels from the prior year. The year on year decline is due to a sharp reduction in planted area and projected lower yields. US Winter wheat had benefited from diminishing drought conditions in the Plains and Midwest, however, a late April snow storm affected large portions of the Hard Red Winter wheat belt, especially western Kansas.

Total US red meat and poultry production for 2018 is projected higher than 2017. Cattle placements during second half 2017 and early 2018 are forecast higher; these cattle will be slaughtered during 2018, supporting higher beef production. Carcass weights are expected to be higher, the increased production is expected to put pressure on prices during 2017/2018. Despite removing itself the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, the US has signed a free trade agreement with China. This agreement will see China lift a ban on US beef, and the US will allow the import of Chinese cooked chicken. US beef exporters are also likely to benefit from a food safety scandal in Brazil, which has seen a number of countries restrict shipments of Brazilian beef.

US Pork production is also forecast to grow with an increased number of farrowings and improved sow productivity. Export demand is supporting US pig prices, with increased shipments to Mexico, Japan and South Korea. EU pig prices have also continued to rise, driven by strong domestic demand, and increased exports, UK pig producers have also benefited from a depreciation in sterling. The USDA are forecasting that strong milk prices and moderate feed prices will drive an increase in US milk production during 2018, with the all milk price forecast for May 2018 in the range of $17.55 to $18.55 per cwt, compare to $17.34 to $17.85 per cwt for May 2017.

New data from the Canadian 2016 census of agriculture shows that slightly older Canadian producers are planting more cropland on larger farms.The average age of Canadian farmers is now 55 (+1.9% on 2011), in line with a long-term trend towards an aging agricultural workforce in most developed countries. There are 5.9% fewer farms than in 2011 – the lowest rate of decline in 20 years, with the average farm size being 820 acres, compared to 729 acres in 2011.


Leaving the single market

Teresa May has set out the UK governments approach and aims in its negotiations to leave the European Union, causing immediate concern among Britain’s farmers.  After signalling a clear intention to leave the single market, real questions remain on how UK trade will operate post Brexit, particularly on the issue of tariffs and how WTO rules will effect the UK’s trading relationships. The EU accounts for 90% of the UKs beef and lamb exports, and these sectors will be hit hard if tariff free trade does not continue, in Q3 2016 over 70% of the UK’s food and drink exports were to the EU.

Even with the UK not wanting to remain within the single market the negotiations will be complex. There is the issue of Tariff rate quotas (TRQs) under which countries such as New Zealand and import lamb into the EU, and the UK and the EU will have to come to an agreement among themselves and the other countries affected about how these quotas are shared out.

Getting an agreement which complies with existing WTO rules could be more complex. The corner stone of the WTO agreement is the concept of “Most Favoured Nation” MFN status, all WTO members agree to accord each other MFN status, which means they cannot discriminate between each other in terms of trade deals offered. These rules could mean any future deal between the UK and the EU offering completely zero tariff free trade could be challenged by third countries seeking greater access into both these markets. Some exceptions are possible – in the case of developing countries, or for a regional free trade agreement. A UK-EU regional free trade agreement could be possible – but could not be concluded until after the UK has left the EU, which does leave the possibility of a period operating under WTO rules – with tariffs on many agricultural exports. This would not just effect UK exporters, but have a deep impact on the Irish beef industry, which sends 54% of its exports to the UK.

The key advantage of leaving the single market for the UK is seen as the ability to set its own trade policy with countries outside of the EU, and develop new trading partners. Many hope that greater flexibility outside the EU will help boost trade and opportunities with fast growing emerging markets and other major markets.  Many of the EU trade talks have been long – for example the CETA talks with Canada which began in 2009, but is still not in effect. A number of countries have expressed interest, however it is worth noting that many of these are major agricultural exporters such as Australia, New Zealand, and the US and this could lead to increased competition for UK agricultural producers.

Some farmers are also hoping that the withdrawal from the CAP will lead to more flexibility in terms of regulations, but it is also likely as well that the UK Treasury will seek to reduce to overall cost of farm support. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will also be seeking an increased responsibility in setting farm policies and different approaches to farm support may evolve across the UK.

What is now becoming apparent is that the vote last year, and the decision not to continue membership of the single market will have a profound impact on UK and EU agriculture over the next few decades.


Antibiotic Use in UK Livestock Falling

This week has been World Antibiotics Awareness Week, which aims to highlight the growing public health issue of Antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

Recently released data shows that sales of antibiotics for use in animals in the UK are at a four-year low. This puts the UK on track to meet it’s targets to tackle antibiotic resistance, according to DEFRA. Overall sales by weight dropped by 9% from 2014 to 2015, while sales for use in food-producing animals dropped 10% from 62 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) to 56mg/kg. This continues a ten-year downward trend and puts the UK on track to reach its 50mg/kg target by 2018. As well as the overall reduction, there is a drop in sales of the highest priority antibiotics that are critically important for humans. Sales of these made up just over 1% of all antibiotics sold for use in animals in 2015.

The poultry meat sector almost halved its use of critically important antibiotics from 2012 to 2015 by improving training, stewardship, stock-manship and disease control. The UK pig industry has also launched a successful online system to record, benchmark and control antibiotic use, which already contains data for millions of pigs. The UK is one of just 89 countries which have a system in place to collect data on antibiotic use in livestock, and no standardized global data on antibiotic use in livestock exists.

The UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, said:

“The UK is making good progress in the fight against AMR and it is particularly encouraging to see how engaged and committed the industry is to this cause.”

The data was published days after a group of UK doctors published called for a complete ban on the routine use of antibiotics in UK livestock. The campaign group Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance (RUMA), which includes the National Farmers Union among its members, said a ban could harm animal welfare. RUMA believes vets end up prescribing more antibiotics if they don’t act to prevent infection and a whole herd is then affected.

Much is still not known about the spread of antibiotic resistance. According a recent FAO report “Drivers, Dynamics and Epidemiology of Antimicrobial Resistance in Animal Production” – it is now accepted that increased antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacteria affecting humans and animals in recent decades is primarily influenced by an increase in usage of anti-microbials for a variety of purposes including livestock. direct evidence linking AMR emergence in humans to food consumption is lacking. The impact of different farming systems is also unclear, while some studies have shown reduced levels of AMR on organic farms, a high prevalence of multi-drug-resistant (MDR) Campylobacter strains has been detected in organic pig farms in the US even in the absence of antimicrobial usage (AMU).

Reducing antibiotic use is not without economic costs, and many consider them a vital tool to ensure the health and welfare of animals, as well as efficient animal protein production. A complete ban on antibiotic use in livestock is likely to be impractical, however it is clear that better management and more responsible use of antibiotics can reduce overall use, and can go some way to slow the development of resistance.