Why farmers must be involved in the animal welfare policy environment

Rob Egerton-Warburton

Where we’ve come from

I come from a long line of livestock farmers – in particular, sheep farmers. I’m the seventh generation to farm in Western Australia (WA). My forebears arrived with the first ships bringing livestock to feed the Albany colony, driving north over the next six generations. The farm I now call my own was cleared by my father from the 50s to the late 70s, and until I arrived home from college in 1995 had only ever run livestock.

Growing up, all I ever knew about the world of farming was sheep, like my father and his father before him. I remember pulling my first lamb from a ewe who was having trouble as if it were yesterday. I was nine years old and my mother stood over me giving instructions as the lamb came out with my help. Unmoved by our presence, she got up and the lamb started to feed.

Thirty-seven years later I’m still here farming sheep, but the world is a very different place to that of my father and earlier generations. My grandfather pioneered the use of superphosphate and clover to improve sheep production; my father pioneered information tech – our house had a personal computer in 1980 on which Dad wrote Agrimaster – and oversaw the birth of objective measurement breeding. I’d like to think I’ve pioneered a more sustainable way to farm using both these innovations, but I think my greatest challenge will be to convince the public that farming animals is not wrong – that it is, in fact, as vital a part of society as it has been for 12,000 years.

Some of the greatest gifts my parents gave me were an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the idea that change is inevitable, so grab it with both hands and run with it. This attitude has led me to many valuable off-farm industry-related experiences. I was a director of the Sheep Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) from 2005–12, completed a Nuffield Scholarship in 2010 and was the inaugural chair of the Sheep Industry Leadership Council from 2011–16. For the past year I have been on the board of the RSPCA of WA. It’s the experiences of these 12 years that will form the basis of this article: I won’t be mounting an academic argument on why it’s important farmers are involved in animal welfare policy, but one from personal experience.

Who are we now

Prior to my generation, almost everyone I knew was involved in farming. My father’s siblings were all farmers and my grandparents still lived on the farm. My mother who came from the city spent the holidays on her cousins’ farm. Mum’s brother managed a research station for the Agriculture Department. Even distant cousins all had a link to agriculture and would often visit the farm.

However, few people of the generation I grew up with remained involved in the sector. Of the 30 students in my Year 7 class, just four of us are farming and almost everyone else lives in a city. Of my family, I am the only one still farming. My parents and siblings live in Perth and rarely visit the farm.

In the past 30 years we have moved from a semi-agrarian culture where everyone was only one generation away from a farm, to an urbanised culture where (due in part to immigration and generational shift) few people know anyone working in agriculture.

The current WA sheep industry is export dominated, with 80% of the meat product and 100% of the wool exported. Of the state’s sheep production, 70% is produced by 30% of the farmers. This equates to about 500 WA farmers with serious skin in the game. The question is: how can just 500 farmers have any influence on the current or next generation of consumer? Why should the consumer even care?

The rest of the world

On my Nuffield travels in 2010 one thing became abundantly clear to me: food (and its safe supply) dominates global politics.

In the United States it’s all about affordability, with the aim of keeping the national food budget capped at no more than 4–8% of wages. This allows more to be spent on major consumables like TVs and cars, which are the real driver of the US economy. Agriculture is regulated through subsidies and farmers are protected.

In the European Union under the CAP (common agricultural policy) farmers are given grants to help them meet environmental and welfare policy where the actions are detrimental to income, eg to plant strips of wildflowers for butterflies or build a bigger barn to meet new regulations for wintering stock. As an example, when I was in Wales the parliament debated a bill to subsidise farmers to keep cattle locked in barns year-round to help the Welsh government meet their 3% methane reduction goals. It didn’t pass.

In South America I finally understood the importance of food from a global perspective. I was travelling with a young sheep researcher who had spent two years studying in Australia. He was surprised by the food choices available and the rise of the anti-genetic modification (GM) movement he had witnessed. In comparison, just having enough food to eat three times a day was something only his generation has enjoyed. Prior generations were never certain of regular meals, as agriculture was subsistence and low tech. Agricultural improvement was the government’s number one priority, and he could not understand why Australians would shun the technology that provides a sustainable food supply.

It was such a contrast to return home to a nation of such abundance that even if the whole country suffered the worst drought in 100 years, there would still be plenty of food – and people would still be protesting about animal welfare and GM crops.

When good intentions go bad

Before spending the past year on the RSPCA WA Board, the definition of animal welfare was not something I’d ever had reason to question much. However, it seems that my definition as a farmer is very different to that arrived at by people from other backgrounds.

It all comes down to death versus discomfort. As a farmer, keeping livestock alive and healthy is the primary goal which preoccupies most – if not all – management decisions. For example, chickens kept in large numbers in the open often die of disease and predation. When we put them in cages the mortality rate drops from 20% to 2%. Mulesing sheep – while a bloody and very unenjoyable task – prevents sheep from dying a horrible death from flystrike. If you believe that welfare is defined by discomfort, then both these practices are intolerable.

Live export sits on both sides of the argument. When it goes wrong it results in both discomfort and death, which is why it’s becoming harder to sustain as an industry.

The egg industry shares another trait with live export: ‘if I can’t see it, it’s not a problem to me’. It seems to me that the animal welfare lobby is primarily concerned with eggs on the shelf in supermarkets (retail) and not pavlovas or the muffin you purchased with your coffee (wholesale) – and I think it’s because you can’t see the egg once it’s processed. Similarly, with live export it’s the welfare of Australian sheep that matter, not the sheep from other countries – the ones we can’t see.

I asked someone within the RSPCA about the potential adverse welfare impacts of the campaign to end caged egg production. The dramatically increased death rate resulting from moving chickens out of cages to open barns was considered irrelevant because the chickens would be free and would suffer less.

The academic world also has some confused priorities when it comes to defining animal welfare. If you want to conduct research on animals you need animal ethics approval – and this becomes a strange mix of politics, blood tests and science.

As an example: for many years I’ve lambed down some of my twin ewes in standing wheat crops, which offers great protection from the elements and an abundant feed source – and has proven to significantly boost lamb survival. Animal researchers I knew wanted to run a trial to validate these findings by splitting a mob in half – one on pasture (normal practice) and the other in crop (abnormal practice) – and thus applied to animal ethics for approval. At first it was denied because the very hypothesis that lamb survival could be increased by lambing in standing crop would place half the lambs at risk by lambing on pasture (normal practice).

The trial was finally given the green light – but the demands from the ethics committee caused one of the worst experiences of my farming career.

Ewes less than score two weren’t allowed in the trial, so two weeks out from lambing 245 ewes were brought to the yards to be condition-scored. I protested that this would put the ewes under too much stress so close to lambing – that they should stay in the paddock. I was assured the science said there was no risk. It took a whole day to do the job with six people in the yards. After the first two hours I wanted the sheep back in the paddock but the animal welfare officer overseeing the operation told me my fears were unfounded and that the condition scoring was more important.

By the end of the day, nine ewes were down in the yards and a further seven died on the way back to the paddock. The next day I found 14 more had died overnight. I called the trial off. It appeared that a lifetime of knowledge and experience running my sheep on my own farm counted for nothing in the eyes of science.

Who makes the call?

So how is it that decisions are made on what is or is not good animal welfare? Well I’m not that sure, other than it involves a lot of science supporting the argument that discomfort is bad and almost none around the realities of animal production. Often the people who make those decisions have no livestock experience whatsoever – other than owning a cat or dog. However, they are intelligent, well-educated consumers who are very concerned about the treatment of animals – and they have every right to be.

One of the most gruelling tasks of sitting on the RSPCA WA board is going through the reports of mistreated cats and dogs each month. The number of cases, the types of neglect and injury inflicted by people on animals is awful. By comparison, farmers have nothing to worry about with regards to animal cruelty after what I’ve seen people in the city do to their pets.

We value expertise in our society – so how is it that generations of animal experience are deemed unimportant when making decisions about animal welfare? I’m not sure I can explain how I know an animal is sick, but I can be driving down the laneway at 80 km/hr and spot one sick sheep in a mob of 1000. I look at these animals every day, and in the same way my father explained things to me I now find myself explaining to my girls what makes a happy sheep. That’s why Indigenous stockmen are so good: 40,000 years of observing nature and passing the knowledge down verbally.

Farmers deal with animals on a daily basis and have an understanding of animal behaviour that transcends science – and they are needed in much greater numbers on welfare boards. The problem is I’m not sure the boards are going to want them, as the commercial nature of farming is very confronting to many people and clouds many institutional beliefs around animal welfare. It’s complicated, messy and changes within the season.

The way forward

I know one thing for sure: the way forward for farmers – all farmers – is not going to get easier. We are outnumbered and politically isolated, often quiet and traditional. We can also be very hard people.

To farm livestock is hard. Every animal we bring to life through our husbandry will die, and that weighs heavily on every farmer. My wife gets very emotional whenever the sheep leave on the truck, it’s not easy for anyone in this business.

I was very young when I first helped my father kill a sheep for slaughter. It was up behind the old water tank, another memory etched in the mind. I threw up, as it was worse than anything I expected to see. People viewing the infamous 2011 Four Corners program seeing cattle slaughtered for the first time (and in very poor circumstances) must have felt horrified. Forty years – and tens of thousands of animals sent to slaughter or killed by my own hands – later, I have become desensitised. It’s no easier now to kill an animal than it was the first time, but to remain in this industry you must bury the feelings deep, to be cold to death; it’s important for the welfare of the animals.

Why aren’t farmers outraged when we see 2500 sheep die on a ship voyage? Not because we don’t care, but because we are desensitised. This opens farmers up to the politics of emotions, as so few people in society now have any relationship to farming that it becomes an easy target for assuaging first-world guilt. When farmers are asked to defend their practices, they come across as cold and emotionless. Agriculture must have missed the memo about getting in touch with our emotions and expressing them at will on television.

It’s important to understand that the welfare lobby groups are businesses also, which survive financially by advocating. They employ large numbers of people and they don’t say: ‘OK, the live exports issue is over, I’d better go find another job.’ They believe in what they do, as much as – maybe even more than – farmers believe in what they do.

I started by discussing how distant we as farmers have become from the urban environment; changing this dynamic is the solution to farmers reclaiming credibility in the welfare policy environment.

Animal welfare and the policy environment around it is 100% the responsibility of farmers. The problem in my view is we haven’t done a very good job of it. We tend to be too protectionist of our practices, too guarded about our feelings, and too resistant to change.

I stopped mulesing my lambs 10 years ago, not because I had to but because I could. The decision was the culmination of 30-plus years of breeding. My father travelled to the UK in the 70s and witnessed how the rise of animal activism was affecting farming practices. On coming home, he changed the breeding of his sheep to a plainer type with no wrinkles and a bare breech. He felt he needed to change before it was forced upon him.

Thanks to my father’s forward thinking, I now have a flock of plain, very fertile and heavy-cutting fine wool sheep that don’t need mulesing and I receive a premium in the market for non-mulesed wool.

In the long term it’s far easier to lead the market than be pulled unwillingly. In many years of meeting with activist and advocacy groups, I’ve learnt that there is no line in the sand when it comes to welfare. There will always be a problem: if industry solves one, another will pop up.

We must change to meet these challenges. We need to be open about what we do and why we do it. We need to back ourselves and talk proudly about the choices we make which keep animals alive and healthy. We need to communicate the effort we put in to the development and adoption of technology and programs which have advanced livestock welfare over the past 20 years.

We also need to change the way we express ourselves, open up about our feelings and share the burden widely with the community. It’s important the consumer understands and respects the sacrifice the animals make and the role of the farmer in that.

We are only as good as the worst practitioner in the eyes of many, so change needs to be a constant in the sector from practices on-farm, through the supply chain and to the leadership of our farming industries. Individual responsibility, practiced across the whole sector, will allow farmers to engage in the welfare and welfare policy environment

It’s clear why farmers need to be involved in animal welfare and the policy that surrounds it. It’s for the protection of animals, not from farmers but from those who imagine they protect them without understanding how they live.

Image:  Mick Keogh