April 27, 2011

'Wormwise' - Time to move on

By Dr Clive Dalton

'Wormwise' was formed to come up with a 'National Strategy' to combat the rising resistance of internal parasites in sheep and cattle to the chemicals used in drenches to kill them. It's launch in 2006 was sponsored by Meat & Wool NZ, the NZ Veterinary Association, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Agcarm. It is still in business with the same objectives, but its work and promotion seems to have gone quiet.

Getting the message out

The Wormwise message was spread by farmer meetings, field days and a seasonal newsletter with Number 1 in May 2006, and the last one I have is Number 9 in September 2009. Wormwise also appointed a national manager (a veterinarian) to keep up the momentum and motivate farmers into action. There have now been two of these.

What's gone wrong?
There's now big concern that the 'national worm management strategy' may have run out of gas, while the problem certainly has not gone away. I believe the programme has done well to last this long, and the organisers should not be surprised at its current status if they looked at what happened to the many other national farming campaigns.

Campaign stages
In my MAF days I worked on many campaigns that went for a while then tailed off, no matter how much money or resources were thrown at them. There were always these well-recognised stages, listed in rough order of priority:
  • Identify a problem. Report and publicise it as a 'crisis'.
  • Brief the Minister to get political traction, and make sure he gets political kudos from it.
  • Get boffins to push the campaign stressing that ‘this has got to be good for farmers’.
  • Use panic to get the attention of farmers via the media who are always hungry for 'news', especially if it's new and generally bad.
  • Keep the panic going to extract a budget from the bean counters, and keep complaining (through the media) that it’s never enough, and if you don't get more, an even greater disaster will hit the industry.
  • Prepare an information ‘package’ and a ‘campaign’. Hire costly PR help, or build your own communications team with a ‘champion’ for the programme.
  • Organise 'delivery of the programme' with publications, press releases, newsletters, videos, print and TV adverts, field days and seminars.
  • Have media-trained 'experts' in your team available for interview at all times.
  • Always have a press package available.
  • Nowadays, set up a website - and forget to keep updating it or run out of ideas over what to put on it. Keep repeating the same old message.
  • Keep informing the knowledgeable, and preaching to the converted.
Initial flush of success
Things go well for the first 18–24 months, and then they start to go flat. It’s like a slow puncture, which you try to ignore hoping it will stabilise, and you won’t have to buy a new tube or worse still a tyre.

Failing the basic marketing test
We boffins regularly failed the basic test of marketing - ‘to wear your clients’ boots’ and we forgot that farmers had a million other things to worry about as well as what we were pushing at them.
We remembered the boot's advice at the beginning, but forget to keep running the check as things tailed off to see what was changing. We failed to see things were changing all the time.

Blame the innocent
We also operated the great ‘Yes Minister’ advice from Sir Humphrey, of never taking the blame for failure, and always blame the electorate. In our case it was farmers who didn’t take up our brilliant ideas, didn’t come to field days and didn’t read our literature. They couldn't see what was good for them! It was their entire fault and never ours.

Looking back now, I’m not proud of the opportunities we botched through running around like headless chooks, and missing the obvious signs of where the wheels were getting loose.

Why Wormwise has done its time and should RIP:
Here's my thoughts:
  • Killing the wool levy and the new drenches on the market are not the main reasons.
  • The campaign always had too much veterinary input, and not enough farmer psychology.
  • Farm owners (average age around 60) quickly got weary of being earbashed about the impending disaster, and their failure to act. Humans get sick of this after a while, especially when disaster doesn't arrive.
  • The main Wormwise message to find out where your sheep were in terms of drench resistance seemed great, but unless farmers had big death rates, it was one of those things that could be left ‘till the first wet day’.
  • Most farmers genuinely believed that they didn’t have a drench resistance problem - again as death rates were not high, and worms were not an obvious problem.
  • When asked about the drenches used, most farmers said that their current drenches ‘seemed to be working OK’.
  • Farmers accepted dagging and drenching, and then more dagging and drenching as normal routine. Things had to get very bad to get some veterinary involvement.
  • Farmers realised that a full Faecal Egg Count Reduction Test (FECRT) took a lot of work, and cost a lot more than expected. Vets didn’t feature this - obviously.
  • Many farmers simply didn’t want to know. It was like being told to have a health check. Farmers in the last 10 years have had other things to worry about like finding ways to stay viable and reduce work as staff became harder to find.
  • Farmers can be easily convinced that their stock need a drench, and few base this on a FEC. If in doubt they drench, and at least they feel better afterwards and the dogs have enjoyed their run!
  • Farmers are starting to understand the ‘Refugia’ concept of not drenching big healthy-looking individuals in a mob. They like it as it saves drench!
  • The advertising for the new drenches reassured farmers that if they did have major problems with resistance, these products (which were expensive) would save them quickly.
  • Repeating a known message soon gets boring as farmers know what it is, so ignore the repeats and switch off.
The future for worm resistance
Drenching based on ‘chemotherapy’ was never sustainable in the past, although we thought it was. It cannot be part of a future New Zealand which is clean and green, and a low-chemical animal protein export business. Evolution being what it is, the more drugs we hit parasites with, the more they will use genetics to get around their problem. We must use the same weapons.

Sadly the large international pharmaceutical companies who manufacture anthelmintic drenches don't see it this way in marketing their products. So large animal vets are in a quandary as they depend on drench sales for a large part of their income, while on the other hand trying to carry out the Wormwise principle of reducing the overall rate of anthelmintics.

The drench business is very competitive with few products being sold as 'vet only'. So this results in a massive adverting push in all the media, especially on TV during rugby events. The list of promotional giveaways used to be limited to domestic products and clothing, but now it has moved to electronic equipment.

Reduce chemotherapy

More and more chemotherapy is not the answer - genetics is, but this message has problems as it is mentioned, almost as a last resort in the Wormwise programme. New Zealand trained veterinarians are not strong on genetics, and in any case, using genetics doesn't earn them much money, other than from Faecal Egg Counts which farmers can do themselves now.

Plenty of evidence that genetics is working
We now know that sheep can be bred that can handle worms, to cut the costs of dagging and drenching (in that order). It’s simply a repeat of how sheep breeders fixed Facial Eczema using the survival of the fittest, and with modern technology, progress could be very much quicker.

There are now plenty of breeders who have been working away unrecognised for years, and now have a genetic solution. This is measured in many ways but the simplest one is how few drenches they need to give to their lambs and hoggets. Their mature ewes have never been drenched for years.

Change when profits decline more
Sadly genetics won’t get traction unless sheep profits decline further, and farmers realise how much they are spending on animal health (mainly drench). Also that farm labour dries up as young folk realise there's an easier way to make a living than hauling around today's 80-100kg ewes to take dung off their rear ends.

It's not worth Wormwise getting upset at farmers' complacency over the national strategy. Somebody needs to talk to farmers and get their views about how they want to manage internal parasites, and not fall into the age old trap of boffins preaching that 'this has got to be good for them'.

And it would be a good idea to get more lectures on animal breeding and genetics into vet training.

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