AUSTRALIAN sheep producers must take a holistic approach to current and future animal welfare challenges, but be cognisant of global market trends, according to WoolProducers Australia president Ed Storey.
In the recent Wool Connect conference, FOUR PAWS International’s head of campaigns – farm animals and nutrition Nina Jamal said the next priority animal welfare issues would be “other mutilations like tail docking, castration” and also reducing stress during shearing.
Mr Storey said this highlighted the need for Australian producers to adopt best practice animal welfare practices for mulesing and other procedures. WoolProducers currently has a policy supporting mandatory pain relief for mulesing, but this policy does not encompass other surgical practices.
Mr Storey said producers needed to understand they were operating in a global environment and he also hoped that Australian Wool Innovation would provide real-time information about market trends around the world. It is becoming expected around the world that pain relief be used for all animal surgical practices, Mr Storey said.
Mr Storey said more than 80 percent of Australian sheep producers use pain relief for mulesing, but if this was not also done with tail docking and castration, it would limit Australia’s ability to talk about other sustainability issues.
“If we don’t do best practice with pain relief, then we can’t talk about things like plastics (in the environment).
“Wool has got an enormous role to play in a sustainable planet, it’s the premium sustainable fibre in the world,” he said.
“But we can’t tell a story if we don’t implement best practice welfare here.”
Mr Storey said the Australian wool production system had different threats, risks and opportunities to other countries.
“We have a really good story to tell, but we’ve got to tell it, and we must remember that these activist groups, most of them don’t want production animals in existence on the planet – that’s just a reality.”
But this should not be seen as an excuse for producers not to implement best practice animal welfare, he said.
“It’s an excuse to put their message in context, it’s not an excuse for us to not do anything at all, it’s absolutely not.
“We must adopt best practice, we must use pain relief for procedures that require it – WoolProducers have had that policy (for mulesing) for coming up two years now and we must do it.”
Mr Storey believed that in the long-term implementation of best practice animal welfare would be a market access issue.
“Particular animal welfare issues (such as mulesing) are easily targeted, as we saw in the Wool Connect conference.
Mr Storey said the Australian wool industry’s issue was how to get consumers to consider a spectrum of issues spanning welfare, sustainability issues and less chemical use “within the complex matrix of the production system that we operate in.”
“How do we tease out the things that we need to tell them, rather than have them set the agenda?
“Sheep and wool producers in Australia have to think about these things in a holistic way, they don’t have the luxury of thinking about just one issue in isolation.”
Mr Storey said he understood about the concern of brands and activists about the obvious welfare issues, such as mulesing.
“But Australian producers must adopt best practice welfare procedures for their sheep – if you are mulesing you must use pain relief, there are now three products on the market.”
WoolProducers leader defends mulesing at Wool Connect
During his Wool Connect presentation, Mr Storey outlined the industry and government frameworks and programs that existed to ensure the welfare of Australia’s sheep “which in turn results in us producing the highest quality wool in the world.”
“I hope this presentation will continue to build trust in Australian wool.”
He said animal welfare is the highest priority of Australian wool growers “and is the core of everything we do, well cared for animals are productive animals.”
He said regulations underpin basic animal welfare in every state and the in 2009, the states, industry and the Federal Government collaborated to set nationally consistent standards and guidelines based on current scientific knowledge, recommended industry practice and community expectations “and to continually improve animal welfare arrangements across Australia.
He admitted that the Australian industry had not effectively communicated to supply chain partners on the issue of mulesing.
“WoolProducers acknowledges that the time for debate on mulesing has possibly passed, as our customers do not want to be associated with this practice.
“However, unfortunately the debate regarding mulesing has become a binary one, whereby mulesing is considered bad welfare and non-mulesing is considered good,” he said.
“It’s not that simple, it must be acknowledged that it is the flystrike that delivers the bad animal welfare outcomes, therefor any process done to prevent this, using appropriate pain relief for certain procedures, must be considered as being in the best interests of susceptible high-risk animals.
“However, it is also true that Australian wool growers have taken a number of steps over the years to build transparency around the practice of mulesing, including the development and high voluntary adoption of the National Wool Declaration.”
Mr Storey said breeding sheep naturally resistant to flystrike is a long-term goal of the industry.
“And while there are growers that have successfully bred sheep that do not require mulesing, there must also be acknowledgement that Merino sheep run across a range of geographic and climatic regions in Australia and that further, there are different types of Merino sheep, some that genetically do not require mulesing, some that do.
“However, there are also large numbers of sheep that would require more fly chemical, crutching and longer-acting internal parasite control chemicals if mulesing was not an option, which is particular concerning given the increase in chemical resistance and the risk of chemical residue,” he said.
“It is unclear how an increase in these practices fits into producing a more sustainable fibre.”
Mr Storey said there are many facets to producing wool in Australia.
“There is more to animal welfare, much more, than just mulesing.
“There is a lot more to animal health than just keeping sheep alive and a lot more to sustainability than just profit.”
Mr Storey said there are a number of challenges that producers through to consumers need to collaborate on to ensure wool can continue to be produced in a sustainable and profitable manner.
“We as producers need to understand and keep pace with evolving consumer demands.
“This will require a change in how we do things on far: as an industry we must continue to innovate to meet and exceed these changing expectations, which we’ve been doing for many decades,” he said.
“It is also incumbent on all supply chain partners to bridge the consumer:producer disconnect.
“Whilst meeting consumer demand is part of any successful business plan, there needs to be an understanding throughout the supply pipeline of what is and what is not practical to achieve at the production level.”
Mr Storey said as well as the industry and regulatory frameworks, growers undertake many measures on a daily basis to ensure the health and welfare of their sheep.
“Therefore, consumers and brands around the world, can have complete trust in Australian wool and its role in a sustainable future.”
Mr Storey said sustainability in the sheep industry has been and will be a key focus in the future, with a number of new initiatives about to be launched.
“These initiatives are driven by the aspiration that wool growers will continue to embrace sustainable farming methods as we have done for many generations, as part of a co-ordinated national approach that that drives productivity and profitability, while recognising and rewarding environmental stewardship.
“WoolProducers in collaboration with the sheep meat industry is driving the development of a Sheep Sustainability Framework.
“This framework will enable the industry to demonstrate sustainable practices identify areas of production for improvement and better communicate with customers and consumers … it will be our industry demonstrating an unparalleled level of transparency.”
He said Australian farmers were custodians of 51 percent of the nation’s land mass, just under 400 million hectares, with a responsibility to manage the land sustainably. Many wool growers also participate in the volunteer-run Landcare movement, which has planted 3.2 million tress in the past three years.
Mr Storey explained how producers could use abattoir data collected by Animal Health Australia’s National Sheep Health Monitoring Project and made available through the Livestock Data Link portal for early detection and management of animal health issues on farms. He also outlined how catastrophic animal welfare outcomes can be avoided through livestock traceability and exotic disease detection systems.
When asked how realistic was it to breed out the body wrinkle from the Australian Merino, he said growers were moving to “clean up” their sheep.
“But in this process and on this journey, the number one priority will be the management of the welfare of their sheep.
“The reality is … the blowfly is not in all countries and doesn’t pose a risk in all countries,” he said.
“Australian wool growers are desperately concerned each and every day about the welfare of their sheep.”
He said there was “a lot of action, a lot of movement” in preventing breech flystrike by breeding plain-bodied sheep, but it will “take a while” and he encouraged brands and retailers to listen to the Australian wool story.
“We have a great story to tell, both in animal welfare and sustainability, biodiversity and traceability and we will continue to tell that at every possible opportunity.
“And we really hope the brands and the retailers of the world are willing to listen.”