How can we improve animal welfare in the face of climate change?

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A baby calf, donated by Heritage Farms, lays in the Baby Animal Barn Monday, September 13 at the Allegan County Fair.

With record heat waves, tragic floods and wildfires in the news, it’s hard not to keep the weather on our minds. These challenges underscore the need to address the multiple causes of climate change in Oregon and across the country.

Understanding the role that agriculture – especially livestock – plays in the climate is paramount, and finding solutions to minimize environmental impact is a priority for those of us dedicated to animal health.

Long before political leaders convened at global summits and sustainability reports were mandatory for investors, farmers and veterinarians understood the importance of managing livestock’s impact on the land, the water and air. At the same time, no one can deny that food production is essential to providing nutrition that keeps people healthy, feeds a growing population and boosts the economy. That’s why the animal health industry has prioritized initiatives to reduce our climate footprint.

As a veterinarian, I have seen firsthand the benefits of focusing on improving animal welfare first. When animals are healthy, the food supply is stronger and more secure, resources are used more efficiently, and farmers maximize production.

Yet, globally, One out of five food chain animals are lost to preventable diseases. It’s not only bad for animals, it’s also a waste of natural resources.

When we improve animal welfare, we also improve sustainability and reduce emissions.

Healthy animals are simply more productive, which improves the efficiency of the food system. Disease-fighting animals need more resources to aid in their recovery, and they may never produce as much as if they never got sick. In this sense, healthy animals allow farmers to operate in a more sustainable and profitable way.

For example, a dairy cow that receives medication to prevent infection by parasitic roundworms produces more milk, allowing the farmer to meet production needs with fewer animals. Similarly, chickens vaccinated against infectious bursitis virus (IBDV) will lay more eggs while requiring less feed, reducing the carbon footprint associated with producing chicken feed.

Additionally, innovative vaccines, diagnostics, and animal husbandry have made agriculture increasingly efficient. For example, in 2010, the production of one kilogram of American eggs generated 70% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than in 1960.

With specific regard to climate change, improved disease management and new therapies can actively reduce emissions in cattle.

Scottish researchers have found better disease management in ruminants such as cows and sheep could reduce emissions by 4.5%, a significant improvement for a country where these animals are responsible for around 50% of GHG emissions.

On the horizon, innovative supplements and vaccines can reduce emissions by targeting methane production in the digestive process. These new and emerging therapies can reduce methane production in dairy cows by 30%.

Will McCauley

Will McCauley

Improving animal welfare through new medicines is the key to unlocking efficient animal production, more sustainable farming practices and reduced animal emissions.

To achieve sustainability and climate goals, we need more and better medicines. And we need a regulatory process that encourages innovation and enables the development of needed therapies.

We can do it, but we need a regulatory framework that rewards science-based innovation to improve animal health, which in turn improves the health of our planet.

Will McCauley is a veterinarian and Director of Veterinary Biologics in Washington, D.C. Animal Health Institute, which represents companies that develop and produce medicines for animals. You can reach him at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the Salem Statesman Journal: Guest Opinion: How can we improve animal welfare?

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