Covid lessons in farm disease control – Anna Cornforth

Anna Cornforth

In this blog post, Future Farmer and New Zealand-based vet Anna Cornforth shares her thoughts on what New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic can teach farmers about disease control. 

A great deal has changed in the world since my last blog post in January. With the Australian bush fires, Black Lives Matter riots and Covid-19, this year has certainly kept us on our toes.

While many of us living overseas during the pandemic outbreak rushed to get home, we decided it would be more sensible to stay put in New Zealand where I work as a vet. I was lucky, the practice I work in is predominantly dairy, and March through to May is the quieter end of the season in New Zealand.

At this time of year cows are winding down milk production. This, combined with social distancing and a strict lockdown, made on-farm visits few and far between.

Since then, cases of Covid in New Zealand have fallen to pretty much zero and Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has been hailed for her government’s efforts in controlling the disease.

It caused me to reflect on what had made Jacinda’s approach so much more successful than other countries, and whether we can learn anything when looking at disease control on our farms.

Swift action

Firstly, we were lucky that Covid cases over here were not higher. By the time lockdown came, cases numbered around 200. This allowed the swift enforcement of an effective control plan, while the disease was localized within clusters.

Many other countries already had significant numbers of cases by this stage, making it much harder to dampen the fire. There is a lesson here that can be directly applied to our farming systems. If control plans are implemented when livestock infection levels are low, we have much more chance of success.

Communication is key

Upon announcement of the Covid pandemic, the New Zealand government clearly communicated alert levels and the population was kept in the loop via regular press releases and nationwide text messages. This clear communication from day dot was another key pillar to controlling the virus. And the same is true on farms.

Clearly communicating with the whole team, including staff, vets and consultants about your goals and plans, makes them far more likely to be carried out effectively by the whole team.

On-farm communication can take various forms, whether it’s ‘toolbox’ meetings, team WhatsApps, clear flow charts or protocols – and a mixture of these can ensure that everyone on the team is working together.

Test effectively

Another lesson from New Zealand’s Covid control plan comes from a reliance on a relatively high volume of targeted testing to identify and isolate cases. On-farm, disease monitoring can be a vital part of controlling spread, whether that be routine herd testing or testing animals in the face of an outbreak. Early detection of rising disease prevalence means more effective control strategies to be put in place early.

Clear lessons

Despite the Kiwis’ successes, it cannot be forgotten that their population is much smaller than the UK’s, and so direct comparisons can’t be made; just as you couldn’t compare disease pressure on an 80 cow suckler herd to that on a 700 cow dairy herd.

However, regardless of the size of the country, New Zealand has had some clear wins that should be applied to disease control. Whatever type of farm enterprise you run, these three principles all apply – early action, good communication and effective monitoring.

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