Academic journal article Rural Society

Farmers, Animal Disease Reporting and the Effect of Trust: A Study of West Australian Sheep and Cattle Farmers

Academic journal article Rural Society

Farmers, Animal Disease Reporting and the Effect of Trust: A Study of West Australian Sheep and Cattle Farmers

Article excerpt

Background

In an increasingly globalised world, in which worldwide travel and trade is accomplished with relative ease, it is not surprising that governments and agricultural industries are concerned about biosecurity. Biosecurity is about safeguarding production crops and animals (and native animals and plants) from pests and diseases with the potential to cause serious economic and/or environmental damage (Australian Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre (AB-CRC), 2003). More new animal disease viruses have been identified in Australia since 1994 than in any previous equivalent period (AB-CRC, 2003), and many programs, strategies and systems have been implemented in an effort to prevent and/or eradicate diseases.

A key component of biosecurity is surveillance - the monitoring of an animal population to determine whether a disease has entered that population (OIE1, 2004). A reliable surveillance system provides early warning of a change in health status of an animal population, and can also provide evidence about the absence of particular diseases (Salman, Stark & Zepeda, 2003). However, most of the OIE recommended surveillance methods do not involve the participation of the producer. This is surprising, since the participation of the producer in disease monitoring may be more than just helpful - it may be vital. Decisions about livestock health begin, and often end, with the farmer.

In Australia, a combination of various types of surveillance, collated by the National Animal Health Information System (NAHIS), is generally required to provide enough evidence of freedom from infection. This evidence can be requested by trading partners. Veterinary records and animal health laboratory records are typical, and high quality, sources of evidence. But because the livestock to vet ratio (and large distances) in Australia make it impossible for a rural veterinarian or agriculture officer to regularly assess the health of every production animal on every farm, it is incumbent upon the farmer to report ill-health and suspicious deaths. Lack of reporting results in lack of evidence (which can affect the livestock export trade) and, potentially, in infectious diseases remaining undetected and hence more easily spread.

Governments have no control over whether a farmer decides to consult a vet for a sick animal or report a diseased or dead animal to a vet or government agricultural body. The most they can do is attempt to inform farmers and hope to influence their decision-making behaviour. Attempts have been made to do this largely through education campaigns and communication strategies (agricultural extension). But the effectiveness of such strategies is variable. If strategies are to be effective, there must be some understanding of the factors that influence reporting behaviour. Hence it is necessary to understand the attitudes and socio-cultural factors that influence reporting behaviour. Although there have been Australian studies of farmer attitudes and behaviour in regard to activities such as natural resource management (Vanclay, 2004; Dunn, Gray & Phillips, 2000), business management (Cameron & Chamala, 2004; Murray-Prior, Hart & Diamond, 2000) and weed control (D'Emden, Bell & Llewellyn, 2004) there have been no studies to date which have attempted to understand farmer behaviour in relation to animal health. In 1999 the Department of Agriculture and Food, Western Australia (DAFWA) noted a reduction in the number of livestock deaths being officially reported by farmers. A small-scale study of the reporting habits of a limited sample of farmers in the Midlands area north of Perth (Western Australia) found that, despite farmers recording what the researcher considered to be a significant number of livestock deaths over a 12-month period, none had contacted a private vet or the local DAFWA office (Hawkins, 1998). The Review of Rural Veterinary Services (Frawley, 2003) also noted that there is 'too little systemic reporting of observations or tests that lead to the reporting by Australia's veterinary authorities that there is no evidence of the existence of most of the diseases' (Frawley, 2003, p. …

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