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30 September 2021

Introducing ‘Biocheck.ugent’: a unique scoring system that gives farmers the necessary insights to keep both their animals and businesses healthy.

Developed by Ghent University’s Veterinary Medicine department, Biocheck aims to assist pig farmers in keeping both their animals and businesses healthy. Prof. Jeroen Dewulf, the driving force behind this methodology, explains the idea behind it.

Jeroen, can you give us an introduction about Biocheck.ugent?

Prof. Jeroen Dewulf: “The idea of Biocheck sprouted out of the aim to reduce the use of antibiotics by preventing animals from falling ill, as well as preventing farms against the introduction of epidemic diseases such as African swine fever (ASF). Biocheck.ugent is, simply put, an online scoring system for biosecurity on pig farms. Think of it as a school report that allows a farmer to objectively evaluate and enhance biosecurity at his farm.

We use a risk based methodology. That is unique. There are other systems available to. Some of them focus on one animal species or on one kind of animal disease. No doubt that each system has its own merits, but no other system uses the same approach as we do in Biocheck.ugent.

What is it that makes this system so unique?

Well, every risk factor on a livestock farm is assigned its own weight based on its importance in disease introduction and spread I believe this is the key to the effectiveness of the system.

Biocheck pinpoints the strengths and weaknesses of the biosecurity measures on a farm very well and gives an accurate insight in the aspects that need improvement to keep the animals healthy. On top of that, the system generates an advice for the farmer. He does not only put data in the system, but he also gets something useful in return.

The Biocheck.ugent systems exists for pig farms but besides that also for poultry and cattle production and is already used in over 60 countries throughout the world. The system is free for use so if you are interested go and find out at www.biocheck.ugent.be.

Belgium’s government has recently included biosecurity in the legal framework. What are your thoughts about this evolution?

Prof. Jeroen Dewulf: “There are a number of countries in Europe where an annual biosafety audit is mandatory. Belgium, but also other countries, rely on Biocheck.ugent methodology for this since the European Food Safety Authority has pinpointed Biocheck as a good tool to investigate and manage the level of biosecurity at farm level.

Personally, I am very pleased about this evolution. It will allow us to compare results across countries and to identify strengths and weaknesses in biosecurity at the level of the entire meat production sector. Based on this information, we can continue our research and give science based advices on how to optimize biosecurity together with the stakeholders and government.

Hygiene will always be the solid base for everything, for every aspect of animal health, but also in human health. Think of African swine fever, bird flu, but also the covid-19 pandemic. We have to keep on investing – and even raise the bar for that matter – in better and cleaner animal housing, in prevention and in biosecurity.

Biosecurity requires an effort from the farmer in particular. What do you see as the biggest difficulty in achieving a biosecure farm?

Prof. “We must all understand that biosecurity is a solid investment, one that pays off really well. A farmer who is concerned about biosecurity is constantly improving his production system, it is a matter of daily attention and attitude. The advantage of improving biosecurity is that you can prevent many different hazards both related to the daily diseases that cause antibiotic use but also related to the threats of the big epidemic diseases. The disadvantage on the other hand is that you don not easily see the effect if you do a good job. We call this the “prevention-paradox”: the better your biosecurity is, the lesser you see diseases, and this is something you get easily used to and then you forget the benefit of your biosecurity efforts.

The younger generation of ‘Millennial Farmers’ is very promising. They seem to have a profound understanding and awareness of biosecurity. Owners of a biosecure farm economize on medical overhead and on the cost of antibiotics use. But the main benefit; in a healthy and more farmer-friendly context they have better production results.

Belgium’s first Antibiotics Covenant demonstrated a remarkable willingness from the entire pork industry to strive for a reduction in the use of antibiotics. In your opinion is a completely ‘antibiotic free’ farming industry possible?

Prof. Jeroen Dewulf: “I really, firmly believe this is possible, but I also believe you should define ‘antibiotic-free’. I am convinced that we can eliminate structural use of antibiotics entirely. Under these circumstances, ad hoc use can occur, but limited to one or two interventions per year and per farm. And by ‘one or two interventions’, I mean treatment of individual animals. Not whole stables or stocks. Most farmers cannot yet do this by tomorrow, but the conviction to strive for it is certainly there.

How long do you think it will take to completely ban the structural use of antibiotics?

Prof. Jeroen Dewulf: “If we stay focused and motivated, I believe we can eliminate structural use of antibiotics worldwide within the next twenty to thirty years…”

However, biosecurity will never become obsolete. It is about much more than antibiotic use, but about containing all infectious diseases. This will always remain a point of attention, and soon embedded in the operational management of each livestock farm.

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