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What a pain!

What is the role of pain relief in the future within our sheep operations?  Imagine this.  I drop you in a room in Melbourne, full of consumers, and ask you to justify the animal husbandry/health operations that you undertake without pain relief.  What are your chances of actually justifying your practices? 

The obvious one is Mulesing, and well let’s face it, a lack of pain relief is simply a lack of compassion for the animals.  There is talk now within the industry around legislating pain relief for Mulesing.  The fact that we need to even talk about legislation to get people to use pain relief when mulesing, is in my opinion horrifying.  As an industry that attempts to portray itself as lovers of animals, custodians of the land, and in a better position than anyone to make decisions on animal welfare, I find the general lack of compassion remarkable.  Remarkable, but not necessarily surprising, nor negligent or arrogant. Put simply, I see it as a product of historical practices and expectations.  Often it is not until someone puts an alternative view to you, that you even consider that perhaps the way things have been done is no longer acceptable. 

Back in the day it was common to grind the teeth of old sheep so that you could get a few more years out of them.  A horrible practice, that is no longer legal.  Why? Because the industry realised that a practice like that was no longer acceptable. Just because we have always done something, isn't an excuse to continue to do it.

Castration and tail docking are two practices which are also under some scrutiny, due to the pain and stress associated with them.  Now while some of you take in a collective deep breath and utter the words “$*#@%&^% what next?”, step for a moment outside of your perspective and into the perspective of the consumer.  What would they want?

I am not suggesting for a minute that we can do without the practices of castration and tail docking, but there are things that we can do differently to better align our operations with the expectations of the consumer.  Pain relief is one.

While Trisolfen has proven itself as a very effective product for use when Mulesing, we had a client ring in the last couple of weeks to let us know that they had used the Mexloxicam pain relief product for the first time at lamb marking.  All they could do was rave about the results.  Bear in mind for a second here, that none of these results are production focussed, but simply animal welfare focussed in the first instance. 

They reported less stress on the animal, less vocalisation (bleating) during marking operations, faster mothering up, travelling better back to the paddock, a faster return to normal grazing behaviour (no big group of lambs hanging near the gateway into the paddock while ewes move off to graze).

Take what you will from that in terms of potential for productivity gains, but we find that most practices designed to improve the welfare of animals, also improve the performance of animals.  I am sure that is no surprise to any of you.  Happy animals = productive animals.

This isn’t an attempt to turn everyone into tree hugging crusaders.  It is just a shift of expectations and practices to better align with those of our consumers. 

So here comes the challenge.  Why aren’t you using pain relief?  If your answer is cost…. That won’t stack up with consumers.  What if it was your dog, and not a lamb.  How much would that change your view of cost? 

Undoubtedly, we need cost control within a farm business, but we also need long term sustainable market access, and consumer engagement.  While costs continue to escalate within farm businesses, picking your mark for investment is important.  You can’t complain about the cost of something like pain relief without a full assessment of the other costs within your business to ensure that your expenses are lean and that there is absolutely no wastage in any other part of the business.

Looking for a premium? Forget it.  You shouldn’t be paid more for doing the right thing.  You should be paid less, or penalised in some way for doing the wrong thing.

So, I ask again, why aren’t you using pain relief?

Nathan Scott is sheep production consultant & keynote speaker. 

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