Head of IfA's Livestock team, Lisa Morgans, summarises the challenges of taking on a new role in a covid-world and what her future strategy will be to ensure that the Livestock team come back stronger than ever....
'January is usually the month where we try to commit to new year resolutions, detox our bodies from the excess of Christmas and look ahead to the next 12 months. Since we are living through a pandemic, I think we will settle with a bit of positive reflecting on the past year and instead celebrate our achievements. No dry January or Veganuary here!
After an enlightening trip to NZ, I joined the IfA team as full-time head of livestock in January 2020. Little did we know what awaited us and how upside down our plans would become! The first few weeks of 2020 were spent getting to know the ‘Livestockers’ – the wonderful Richard Lloyd and Laura Palczynski - as they patiently got me up to speed with our EU Horizon 2020 projects and the alien terminology. IfA has been very successful in the EU Horizon 2020 sphere managing to secure funding and participation in 10 different food and farming themed projects in the last few years. The year started with Richard and I travelling to a variety of dairy farms in South Wales and the South West of England as part of the DISARM project. DISARM aims to bring together researchers, vets, farmers and advisors to share tools and practices that promote animal health, with the goal of reducing dependence on antimicrobials in European livestock production. We worked with 5 dairy farmers to assess their biosecurity measures, collate medicine use and establish a farm health team. We then facilitated farm team meetings to co-create shared goals and action plans to achieve them. Alongside DISARM, Richard was busy planning international farm exchanges as part of the NEFERTITI project and Laura was developing tools and resources for the EURAKNOS project to help researchers and advisors across Europe share knowledge and innovation.
I had found my feet at IfA by February and started planning other exciting projects based on my PhD research, to include facilitated workshops with farmers and agri-tech companies to overcome some of the barriers seen in the agri-tech world, farm workshops on developing positive welfare frameworks with wool growers and the wool industry (more on this later), and an ambitious calf wellbeing development programme with dairy producers in collaboration with the Royal Agricultural University. But we all know what happened by 23rd March...
So then our work surroundings changed somewhat. I became very familiar with our spare room, now the study, and I have basically learnt to touch type through hours of computer time. However, IfA responded remarkably well to the change in circumstances and we all pivoted to remote working with ease. Although some of us were furloughed throughout the initial lockdown, Laura and others continued to work on the EU projects and the IfA media team achieved a great feat – the Greatest Online Ag Show (GOAS). GOAS was in response to the cancellation of the 2020 show season and attracted 60,000 page visits and raised over £16,000 for charity. Proof that IfA are not only an adaptable bunch but a real good news story.
An online world
By the summer, farmers were busy on the land and facing more extreme weather conditions and we had returned to work... albeit in a virtual workplace. I was keen to carry on holding online meetings and workshops to check in with farmers often working in isolation, and boost morale since the usually busy calendar of farm events was still cancelled. I was surprised at how well farming also adapted to the online world; Zoom, “unmute yourself” and raise hand function now entered the national lexicon. As a team, we became proficient at chairing and facilitating online meetings - whether small group workshops or larger webinars - and using digital tools to aid discussions. Laura and I were asked to speak on webinar panels as part of the Farmer-Led Innovation Network and we spoke at national and international conferences that had moved to online platforms, such as the British Mastitis Conference and The Future of Youngstock Management Symposium. I also delivered online training in facilitating small groups for the DISARM network and a course on Antimicrobial Resistance in the farming context for AIC’s Feed Advisor Register. The industry saw a huge shift to online resources and learning that looks set to continue.
After a series of online pitches to industry over the summer, we also managed to secure some funding for one of our projects and are happy to announce the calf wellbeing development programme will be kicking off in 2021 with our partners Saputo UK and in collaboration with RAU. If you are a farmer or industry member and interested in taking part in a similar programme to help improve calf health and welfare, please get in touch!
We may be a small team, but we are certainly mighty! Laura and I both had peer-reviewed publications out in 2020 (see here and here) and Laura did her PhD viva; proof that lockdowns are good for something... writing! By September, work was picking up again. As restrictions lessened, we started venturing out on farm to collect media footage to share and promote best practice in the livestock industry (and just to talk to real people and see some actual livestock), examples of which can be found here.
Autumn was a busy time for the UK agricultural industry in general. Things were heating up in the Brexit negotiations and the pressure was on to avoid a disastrous No Deal scenario. DEFRA were ploughing ahead with development of the Environmental Land Management and the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway – 2 important opportunities for UK agriculture to improve and position itself as a world leading industry for livestock and the environment. I was fortunate to be able to present to DEFRA at their annual (digital) harvest festival about my research on farmer-led innovation, behaviour change and a veterinary perspective on animal health and welfare. DEFRA are making commendable efforts to involve more stakeholders in the process of policy co-design.
An exciting opportunity in 2020 was my involvement in the Arwain Vet Cymru programme, which is an innovative scheme led by Dr Gwen Rees to develop a Vet Prescribing Champion network in Wales. I was asked to facilitate 2 large vet workshops online as part of the programme. The first one was helping the vet champions to develop their Action Plans around ways to improve their prescribing choices and general antimicrobial stewardship in veterinary practice in Wales. This was a very fruitful 3-hour workshop, where the vets came up with ideas as diverse as training of all practice staff in responsible usage, pharmacy tools and inter-practice collaboration to prevent farmers going elsewhere to get certain medicines. The second workshop a few weeks later focused on antimicrobial stewardship policy development – which organisations are needed and in what ways to help encourage and facilitate responsible veterinary prescribing in Wales. The project has been such a success that it is being scaled up nationally as part of RUMA’s targets taskforce on responsible antibiotic use (see here). Into 2021, I will be consolidating the findings from the policy workshop and wider programme to form a policy brief that can help decision makers act upon the veterinary recommendations from the programme.
As the winter drew in there was a flurry of last-minute funding proposals, some which are still ongoing. Amongst the proposal writing, we won our next EU project called DECIDE starting in Spring 2021. This will be a 5-year international project developing evidence-based, decision-support tools to help farmers, vets and researchers reduce and eradicate non-notifiable infectious diseases across European livestock production.
IfA run wool welfare workshops in collaboration with HDWool.
There’s nothing woolly about welfare!
Perhaps my biggest highlight over the Winter months was the window of opportunity to hold an actual on farm workshop in December. This was in collaboration with HDWool and is a pilot project with wool growers to co-develop a positive welfare framework that encourages and promotes the opportunities farmers are giving their sheep for a ‘Good Life’. The end goal is to demonstrate the work wool growers are doing to go above minimum standards for sheep welfare and share that story along the wool supply chain resulting in a higher price paid for wool.
After an introductory online meeting back in May, we finally managed to meet on farm for a socially distant farm walk and facilitated discussion. I even experimented with a live Zoom link so that people from further afield could attend virtually. A great success! The workshop began with the host farmer showcasing their pedigree, high health status Superfine Merino flock with genetics from Australia and wool as fine as 16-18 micron. On the farm walk we heard how the host runs a completely closed flock, uses embryo transfer and natural breeding, has achieved accredited status for Maedi Visna, is Scrapie certified and has no detectable footrot on site, demonstrating an exceptionally well-run unit. It was clear the stockpersonship was second to none and attention to sheep wellbeing was evident with the provision of toys in the pens and the calm, quiet demeanour of the sheep. The group were keen to discuss positive welfare and we focused on shearing as the topic of choice. We discussed the shearing process from the perspective of a sheep, and which events and opportunities exist during shearing to provide a more positive experience. This is the first farm workshop in a series of 3 as we work towards a verifiable tool to audit and promote sheep wellbeing in the wool industry.
As we forge into 2021, I am confident that the Livestock team and wider IfA will continue to help the farming industry evolve and improve through effective and hands-on knowledge exchange. We may have been stuck at home for most of 2020 but we have not wasted the opportunities to secure funding for future projects ready to hit the ground running as soon as we can. I have loved working with such a passionate and talented team and in difficult circumstances. We have big plans for UK farming from concepts such as farming policy immersion centres, continuous improvement programmes on issues like TB and animal welfare to regenerative farming practice mentorship schemes. Watch out post COVID world!'
Interested in chatting with Lisa? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org