Animal Health Ireland (AHI) is a small industry grouping that consistently punches well above its weight.
Despite having a budget of under €2m per year, it has been a large part of the movement to deliver BVD-free status, to reduce the national somatic cell count and plays a significant role in managing calf health, ibr and Johnes on Irish farms.
Despite having a budget of under €2m, it works because of its unique model, where the technical and implementation groups for AHI are doing so free gratis or as part of another role. Outgoing AHI c
hair Mike Magan claims he has been at over 900 internal AHI meetings in total since it started in 2009 – along with 20 other people on average at those meetings. That’s a lot of engagement. AHI has come in for its fair share of criticism. Some deserved, some unnecessary, but after 14 years as chair, what has he learned?
JK: Mike, for the benefit of readers, could you talk about the start of and the principle behind AHI?
MM: It was part of the programme for the Fianna Fáil-led government during the mid 2000s, when Mary Coughlan was Minister for Agriculture. I was asked by the Department secretary general at the time, Tom Moran, would I chair AHI. Joe O’Flaherty was the Department official nominated as CEO. We started with a few brain storming sessions with UCD’s Michael Doherty and Simon More and we shaped a vision.
Talk to me about funding – where it was at the start, where it is now?
At the start, AHI inherited a funding structure that had the dairy co-ops funding money proportionate to their milk volume and the Department would match that. Subsequently, as AHI delivered, the dairy processors invested more, the meat factories joined the funding pot and the current budget for AHI is between €1.5m and €2m per year.
Realistically, that means a very small proportion of the annual spend on animal health each year by farmers is spent on AHI – I mean less than 1%?
Yes, and compared to what Teagasc and ICBF get, then animal health is the runt of the litter. Personally, I believe if animal health is currently responsible for 7.5% of the MACC, it should be much more, it could be double that.
Should the investment be higher from farmers and the Department?
Yes of course it should be higher.
Explain how AHI works
The AHI technical working groups are the scientists that decide what is the best science to move with. We also have implementation groups. These groups are where the industry meets the science and a path forward is developed. So we operate a consultative process, which I believe is the only way forward, however, it does come with a cost. All organisations have a multi layered representative structure and it means getting decisions can take time. The decision-makers are not always in the room and there is also constant change in the people sitting around the table.
But you can’t always expect to have the CEOs around the table – people will always move positions within and between organisations.
Yes I agree, but I think some sort of an annual summit or dialogue between the ultimate decision-makers would be well worth the investment. For many issues, we can’t agree until everyone is in agreement. For example, BVD – since the start, we had 125 meetings with an average of 20 people at those meetings. Think of the cost and effort to get to that position. I would love if we could have done that with a fewer meetings in a shorter timeframe, but we didn’t.
During your tenure, what was the key to success from the AHI model?
I think keeping the technical working group and the implementation group separate was a big step.
What’s the biggest drawback of this model?
Without a doubt, the time it takes and the turnover of people to keep everyone up to speed.
Who chairs the implementation group?
AHI CEO David Graham chairs the implementation group. Ultimately, he is going to be charged with implementing it and someone has to take responsibility. However, it is very demanding on the CEO.
As an industry if we are moving at the pace of the slow runner then surely we are getting passed out by others?
Yes, there is definitely a cost to it, but I still believe it is the right model, if it could be tweaked slightly so that incremental progress is maintained and delivered in a smarter fashion.
You mentioned BVD eradication has taken longer than planned, but it is a success story. However, I sense frustration?
Hands up, I was naïve in believing that when you point out to a farmer that they have diseased animals in their herd that they would take action. Also BVD highlighted some irregularities and realities of farming in Ireland in terms of registration, mixing of animals etc. I’m not giving excuses, but reasons. The Department is the only one that can drive or enforce behavioural change.
What are AHI’s key achievements?
The cost benefit analysis for BVD originally on 1m dairy cows was €106m per year. Now, we have over 1.5m dairy cows, but, we have never upgraded the benefit analysis. You could comfortably suggest it is delivering over €100m per year.
Cellcheck is delivering €10m to co-ops and over €45m to farmers annually. Now, it’s not all down to the Cellcheck programme of course, but, where once we were laggards in Europe, we are now industry average on a European scale. These are some of the gains.
We have a national database that is used to pick genetically superior animals to breed from but it’s not getting enough animal health data. How can we improve?
As an industry are we mature enough to do it? Are we ready? The fear among farmers is that early adapters will be victimised and for farmers to participate in inputting all health data, I think it needs to be linked to some other element in terms of reward, eg milk price.
Where are we on BVD-free status?
Currently, the Department is the competent authority and it is establishing what criteria the EU needs to apply for BVD-free status. The application will be made at the end of 2022, if the numbers stay going in the right direction.
Johnes disease – what is holding back progress?
Ironically, Johnes was one of the main reasons why AHI was set up by the industry. There is still a stigma among farmers associated with it and farmers tend to live with the problem. We see herds that fail to take action, tend to get worse.
As you walk out the door, what’s your hope for the future of AHI?
That it continues to deliver – we’ve done well to come from a fledgling organisation, but it can only deliver with support of the entire industry. The ultimate decision-makers; the minister, industry leaders, farm organisation leaders, the co-op CEOs, the chairpersons, the head of the Department of Agriculture, all need to dedicate time to the process once per year. When the head people dedicate time and understand the process, it gives authority to those working in those organisations.
I think AHI is in good shape to tackle the future. It has structure and delivery mechanisms to help farmers. It has already delivered to the tune of €200m annually.
We did 33 meetings in marts when we were promoting the merits of a BVD programme. On a freezing cold winter night in Clifden we had a very small crowd and at the end of the meeting someone said, “I don’t agree with what you said, but, at least you came out to talk to us”.
And finally but crucially, the people that work in AHI, many behind the scenes, constantly delivering for farmers. I have great admiration for them and I am delighted to call them friends.