Originally published as a series of four articles written by Rachael O’Brien, Manager Biosecurity & Extension, Queensland
A good biosecurity plan consists of sound practices, and is as individual as the property it protects.
The question I’m often asked is what is biosecurity, and how does this translate into a biosecurity plan?
Biosecurity describes good management practices that will minimise the risk of either bringing disease/pests onto your property or spreading them by sending them off.
To implement good biosecurity we first must understand what we are trying to achieve. The common goal of most biosecurity plans is to protect your livestock from pests and disease. The broader goal of biosecurity is to prevent the entry, establishment or spread of a disease. This is applicable to exotic diseases (diseases you don’t have in your region, state or even country) and endemic diseases (diseases that are already here and established so we now must manage their impacts).
The golden rule of biosecurity is segregation. If we keep a disease or pest away from a host there is little chance that the host will become infected. Our best biosecurity asset is our island status. Being segregated geographically from other countries is why we don’t have a lot of the nasties that other countries do. Sure, we have plenty of hosts (i.e. livestock), but our absence of land borders with other countries decreases the likelihood of an exotic disease just dropping in. It also means we can focus our preventative methods in the areas that we know something may enter (e.g. airports, sea ports), rather than managing an entire border. The Australian Government works to protect Australia from serious biosecurity threats every day, but if this isn’t enough you are our next line of defence.
You do this by having an on-farm biosecurity plan, with processes in place that in the event of a disease introduction you can play your part in detecting it and assisting with its eradication or management.
A lot of what we producers do every day is actually part of good biosecurity in terms of managing endemic disease. Even a day-to-day management practice such as vaccinating your animals starts to have an effect on that disease; because it’s unable to find a host the likelihood of it surviving starts to decrease. This is part of biosecurity 101. By implementing good biosecurity practices you are helping your neighbours, your region and your industry.
Part 1: Disease Transmission
To apply adequate biosecurity measures to our properties that protect livestock from disease it’s important to have an understanding of what they are and how they are spread.
Disease is a word that we use to describe anything that negatively impacts on our animals that isn’t a physical injury. What causes that disease is then referred to as a pathogen and we break this word up into three major categories – viruses, bacteria and a fungus.
There are five main ways that an animal gets a disease:
- Direct Contact: when there has been physical contact between an infected animal and a susceptible host(s). This could be through tissues and or bodily fluids (e.g. saliva, blood, or faeces). Such contact would occur during breeding (sexually and mother-to-offspring), nose-to-nose contact, ingesting faeces whilst grazing or even when fighting. Disease generally enters the uninfected animal through orifices; the most common are sexually, orally, through the eyes or nose, or through open wounds.
- Inhalation (aerosol) (Indirect transmission): the animal inhales the disease as droplets carried through the air. Foot-and-mouth disease can be contracted via the inhalation of infection. (We don’t have FMD in Australia)
- Oral Ingestion (Indirect transmission): the animal eats or drinks the pathogens. This could be through feed or water contaminated with faeces, saliva, blood or urine. The faecal-oral pathway is the most common contributor to the spread of disease.
Fomites (Indirect transmission): an object that capable of spreading infection after coming into contact with the pathogen. This applies to inanimate objects such as equipment, clothing vehicles and footwear, needles, drench guns, dirty gloves, water buckets etc. Think of it like the cutting board on chicken dinner night. The cutting board isn’t going to make us sick but if we put raw chicken on the cutting board and then put the cooked chicken back on the cutting board we can transfer bacteria onto our dinner. This doesn’t mean we should never use a cutting board ever again, it just means we need to clean it between uses.
- Vectors (Indirect transmission): mosquitos, ticks, midges and flies can also carry diseases from animals to animals. For example, three day sickness is spread by biting insects that bite and feed off infected animals and then bite and feed off a non-infected animals thus infecting the second animal.
Stay with me – I am explaining this because this is the most fundamental element of how you apply biosecurity. Knowing what you are up against means you know how to deal with the problem to solve it.
Pests is another broad category; pests are anything that has a negative impact on our animals or environment. Wild pigs are considered a pest to agriculture because they destroy things, muddy up water holes and can spread diseases. Cattle ticks are considered a pest because they have an economic impact on your profits by taking blood from your animals. This impacts on production rates, meaning instead of converting food to weight gain they are putting efforts into repairing body tissues and replacing blood cells, which starts to limit their growth and weight gain.
Both disease and pests have one thing in common: they negatively impact on livestock industries, whether that be through lost production or animal health. Preventing this impact or minimising the effect seems logical.
So how do we deal with both of these things, in order to minimise their impact? Using a biosecurity plan is how. Having an on-farm biosecurity plan helps you to play your part in the greater picture of biosecurity.
Part 2: If it moves, it poses a risk
We’ve already discussed the five key ways in which diseases spread between livestock. Understanding risk is central to developing a biosecurity plan and also helps you to play your part in the greater picture of biosecurity. The next step is to recognise that human activity and farm management practices can both create and mitigate biosecurity risks.
Pests and disease, both exotic and endemic, are most likely spread from property to property through livestock movements. As technology and infrastructure has evolved over time pest and disease can now spread even further. In today’s world we can load animals onto a truck or trains and have them hundreds of kilometres away by nightfall. We can’t manage hundreds of kilometres of land, but we can manage the loading and unloading points.
When we bring in new animals, knowing the health status and history of these animals is important. The aim of the game here is to limit the introduction of pests and diseases onto your farm. So ask yourself what diseases are endemic in my area, how do they spread, and which ones am I trying to manage? Make a list. What pests do I have in the area that I don’t want on my property, and how are they spread? Add them to your list.
You may choose to manage these threats by buying livestock that are free from or vaccinated against diseases you are trying to prevent. It is recommended that you use an animal health declaration when buying and selling livestock, as it gives you the opportunity to gather as much information on these animals as possible. It also gives you the opportunity to provide this information to your prospective buyers. More information about cattle health declarations and JBAS can be found here.
Stock feeds and water
Australia has swill feeding bans in place to prevent the introduction of serious diseases into our country and industry. People who have pigs need to understand what is and is not swill if they are feeding scraps to pigs. Swill feeding includes any part of a vertebrates, it also includes food that has come into contact with meat products, for example if you had steak for dinner, any leftover steak is considered swill but since your vegetables have also been on the same plate as your steak they are also considered to be swill. Read more in swill here.
State governments also monitor products fed to ruminants as stock feeds for restricted animal matter (RAM) through compliance projects to ensure that RAM is not being fed to ruminants through this pathway. It is important that producers do their bit in terms of ensuring RAM does not find its way to ruminants. Producers should ensure all staff or people that feed ruminants know about the ban in feeding RAM to ruminants so it is not being fed by accident. Other products may also contain RAM such as pig and chicken feeds as well as blood and bone fertilisers being a few key examples. If you use these products you should ensure they are stored in a manner that prevents access by ruminants. There is a helpful producer checklist available that will assist producers with managing RAM on their properties and remember- Absolutely no RAM for the pet lamb.
Bringing on hay or grain products should also be managed from a food safety aspect. Hay and grain production can include the use of chemicals which can leave residues and require withholding periods. It’s not illegal for these businesses to use chemicals, as it is part of their production, but producers who then buy their products and feed them to livestock should ask for a Commodity Vendor Declaration so that if there has been a chemical applied to the product you can continue to manage any withholding periods accordingly.
Managing people, vehicles and equipment
This one is always the hardest sell to producers but it’s the most important one for those exotic diseases.
Some diseases like foot and mouth disease – which is a virus spreads through fomites (clothing, vehicles, equipment), directly from infected animal to susceptible animal, or through the air via infected droplets (sneeze or even the breath of an infected animal) – are extremely serious and, thankfully, not present in Australia. Because we don’t have foot and mouth disease we don’t need to make everyone have a shower before they visit or leave our property, but we should keep a record of when they visit.
During an emergency animal disease outbreak such as foot and mouth disease, making everyone shower and wash down their vehicle will be part of management and containment, but in peace times we should focus on record keeping. In the event of an emergency animal disease outbreak these records are very important. To contain and eradicate a disease, state governments need to be able to trace the original source to ensure complete containment. Your records could play a huge part of how quickly this happens. The quicker an exotic disease is contained the faster our country can enter the proof of freedom phase to start gaining access to our previous international markets. Your records could be the difference between a five or a 10 year ban on international trade. Producers or Veterinarians that want to know more about foot and mouth disease can complete free online training here.
If you keep your animals away from your home block and you do not have a way of knowing who has been on your property then you may choose to use signage. Signage is a tool to help capture visitor information. You can choose to erect a sign displaying your contact details (phone or UHF) of how people wanting to access your property can contact you to discuss their visit. Signage is not compulsory, if you do not wish to use a sign no one will force you. Find out more fact vs fiction on signage here.
The other aspect of why we should manage our visitors is weed introduction. The first rule of weed spread is that the bigger the surface area of an object, the more weed seeds it can bring in. When I am looking at my own boots vs my vehicle, my vehicle is the bigger problem. You could install a wash down facility to address vehicle movement; they certainly solve the problem, but for those of you not in that financial position, you can also apply the golden rule of biosecurity – segregation. If someone comes onto your property to visit, be it a vet, your agent or a family member, have them park their car at the house and take yours around the property. In doing so, you know visitors have come in via your driveway and where they have parked, so you can manage this area for weeds. If visitors’ vehicles stay at the house or don’t leave established tracks you are not increasing your work load.
Managing equipment that you may lend to neighbours or hire out is also important for weed introduction. If you do share equipment it is best practice to wash down equipment when you are going between enterprises or be clear with how you expect the equipment to be returned.
Part 3: Everyday Biosecurity
Biosecurity is a concern each and every day, not just when new stock, supplies or visitors are arriving. The good news is, best practice management strategies can easily be worked into your everyday farm management activities.
Vaccinations and treating animals for parasites are good biosecurity techniques for disease management. Diseases can be spread many ways but in each case a disease must find a susceptible host. If your animals are vaccinated for diseases they become less susceptible and less likely to be infected. This strategy depends on what risks you have in your area. If your herd is at risk of endemic diseases that can be prevented by vaccinations, then vaccinating your herd can reduce these financial losses.
When using vaccines and chemicals as part of a management program it is important to consider recording requirements and, most importantly, withholding periods and export slaughter intervals. Some chemicals have a withholding period meaning your animals should not be sent to an abattoir until they are outside of this time frame. Many also have re-treatment intervals meaning you cannot apply that chemical again until outside of the retreatment interval. Chemical usage in livestock is a serious deal because your product is a food source.
The Livestock Production Assurance program (LPA) outlines standards that producers agree to abide by when they become accredited. Part of your commitment to LPA and industry is that chemicals are used responsibly. This includes guaranteeing that veterinary drugs are only used when necessary and in strict guidelines to how they were intended. It includes ensuring correct dose rates for the weight of animals, identifying treated animals and identifying animals with broken needles. It also includes handling and applying other chemicals appropriately such as backlines and drenches in accordance with their labels and you are ensuring animals do not travel to abattoir when they are still within a chemical withholding period.
The other risk of chemicals making their way into your animals is through contaminated sites or items being left unmanaged on your property. This might include old yards pre 1980, old dip yards, sheds, old homesteads, old power poles and discarded batteries. Old dips contained chemicals like arsenic whereas old power poles and yards may have been treated with chemicals such as dieldrin. These are serious chemicals that can have long lasting residuals. Discarded batteries, old paint tins or structures painted in lead based paints are also a source of lead. Lead can be a large problem for producers as abattoirs test for chemical residues including lead. Lead can be consumed by livestock willingly resulting in death or elevated lead levels in the animal for months or years after consumption depending on the dose. If you have old battery dumps it is highly recommended you ensure your livestock cannot access them or dispose of them appropriately.
Other aspects to consider are carcass management and surveillance. We have two types of surveillance in Australia. The first is referred to as active surveillance and is undertaken by national programs where we monitor for diseases that we don’t have through testing and then we use that information to tell countries who buy our products that we are free of these diseases. These are programs like the National TSE (Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies) Surveillance Project (e.g. mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep) are monitored by samples taken through the Bucks for Brains Project. You can participate in ‘Bucks for Brains’ through your local veterinarian or Department of Agriculture. Animals showing symptoms of TSE can be euthanised and have samples tested free of charge to producers; producers will also be paid an incentive to participate. If you don’t have access to local veterinarians and are interested in learning more about taking samples to participate in surveillance programs please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
The other aspect is passive surveillance, including on-farm surveillance conducted by livestock owners. This can be as simple as looking at your animals when you put out hay or lick or when you are checking waters. If you check your animals and note that you have animals sick or are experiencing unexplained stock deaths that you cannot diagnose, your concerns should be reported immediately. You can report this to your local veterinarian or Department of Agriculture or you can contact the emergency animal disease watch hotline on 1800 675 888. This number is manned by registered veterinarians who will be able to provide advice on the situation. You should have an emergency disease action plan in place for your property to assist you in managing a potential emergency disease. This plan should include preventing movements on and off your property until the relevant authority says it’s safe.
Carcass management is also a biosecurity measure to assist you in managing endemic disease. Managing carcasses may also reduce feral animals from visiting your property. It is long since accepted that animals might die in the paddock and never be seen, especially on extensive properties but if you do come across carcasses you should do something to manage them. Burning or burying them are good ways to dispose of carcasses. If you are burying them ensure you are not burying them over a high water table. If you are not able to do either of these, you may be able to use a contractor to remove the carcass (dependant on area) or drag the carcass off a water point to a less trafficked area of the paddock. Even though this is not ideal you are still reducing the amount of your animals that come into contact with the carcass, which in phosphorus deficient country may encourage bone chewing.
Weeds and pests are sometimes difficult to manage. Pest and weeds should be managed as part of day to day activity because of their invasive nature. Feral animals compete for food and water and damage infrastructure. Weeds compete for space and nutrients that pastures/fodder crops could be utilising and in some instances can be toxic to stock. There are many different methods for controlling weeds and pests, some are more suitable than others. Weed and pest management comes down to how much of an impact the problem is having on your property, which will govern what approach you take. Firstly it’s important to outline your goals (e.g. eradication vs management) and then consider the practicality of available management processes. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to weeds and pests. Some producers spot spray weeds where as others rotational graze with species that help manage weeds. Some producers engage a licenced contractor to shoot feral animals where as others fence their properties to prevent entry. There is help available in regards to pest and weed management including local and state governments and Landcare groups. A regional approach may also be more appropriate in some instances where neighbours work together to manage pests and weeds. This can happen by timing programs to tie in with either so that a larger area becomes managed for the same problem. A little bit of biosecurity can go a long way, especially when we all work together.
Part 4: Everyone’s Responsibility
Your biosecurity plan plays a role in the wider biosecurity system, assisting you to effectively monitor for and respond to unusual signs which may indicate a disease or pest incursions. To that end your responsibility for biosecurity doesn’t end when crops, livestock or products leave your farm.
You are responsible for any product moved off the property, such as livestock heading off to agistment or for sale. In Australia we have legislation that outlines our responsibility to our livestock for all stages of their time with us. These expectations are highlighted in the new animal welfare guidelines and standards (note you need to have read and understood this document and to have access to a copy for your Livestock Production Assurance animal welfare module). Supplying your buyers with Animal Health Declaration also provides assurances as to the health and welfare status of the livestock, for buyers to make decisions accordingly. We have further obligations when we are travelling our livestock. The Australian Animal Welfare Standards for the Land Transport of Livestock has been endorsed for legislation. It outlines guidelines that producers must consider when travelling livestock around Australia. The ‘Is It Fit To Load?’ guide is also a very helpful guide in assisting producers in assessing what is and what is not fit to load. As a general rule of thumb if it is noticeably injured or cannot put weight on all 4 feet then it is not fit to load. If in doubt, leave it out! Producers also have obligations in terms of reporting certain livestock movements to the NLIS database.
It is important that producers keep accurate records of biosecurity practices and staff training. If you do not have staff, you still have a responsibility to people who come and give you a hand e.g. family members or friends. It is particularly important if you leave people in charge of your stock from time to time. Do they know what to do if confronted with many sick animals and can they manage your animals to the same standard as you would in your absence? If you do have staff and they have undertaken training, document this. This information may already be documented under your work place health and safety obligations. If you feel like you are duplicating records you can make a note in your biosecurity plan to refer to these records for more information rather than reinventing the wheel.
Ensure your records are easy to find and in a safe place. In the event of an emergency disease incursion the aim of the game is to be able to hand over your records in a timely manner. Emergencies of any capacity are stressful so sorting out your records in peacetime is well worth the initial effort.
By the end of this series you should have a better understanding of not only what biosecurity entails, but also how you can implement a biosecurity plan covering the main risks of incursion. The Australian Government works to protect Australia from serious biosecurity threats every day, our island status is our best asset in managing diseases, pests and weeds but that doesn’t mean it could never happen. Our next level of protection is our state departments and our most important level is you. You are our on-the-ground level of defence and as such you have a responsibility to manage biosecurity not just for the sake of your own property but for your region and your industry as well.
You contribute to the national biosecurity system by having an on-farm biosecurity plan, with processes in place that in the event of a disease introduction you can play your part in detecting serious disease so it can be eradicated.
If you have any questions or wish to speak further about biosecurity on-farm, contact your state LBN manager.