One of the aims of the NEAT program is to increase the use of economics by vets. As stated in a previous blog entry by Henk Hoogeveen, “for every veterinarian a basic appreciation of the use of economics in diagnosis, treatment and prevention of animal diseases is necessary”. The use of economics for making decisions when managing health in the field remains low (with probably huge differences among species and among countries). For instance in France very few bovine health management advisors include economics in their daily activities. Decision making in cattle production has been based for a long time on comparison with the situation of farms with “good results” (called “model farms”). Making health decisions taking into account economic considerations remains difficult for bovine producers. A reason why economics is scarcely used in cattle production compared to intensive swine or poultry farming is among other related to the difficulties of reasoning in closed systems, and to the difficulties to evaluate the production unit as a whole, with for instance difficulties to evaluate the proper costs of feeding. Long production cycles also complicate the economic evaluation.
Economic evaluation tools are available for some diseases or production issues but using such tools is time consuming and has limits as previously highlighted by Keith Howe in the NEAT blog. Decision makers in the field are looking for basic estimation of total costs or avoidable costs of diseases, so as to facilitate decision making accounting for economic consideration. This is all the more true considering that input or output price volatility is currently increasing, making it difficult to compare current performance with the best results of farms of previous years.
Given these constraints, it may be the researchers’ responsibility to generate estimates of (total or avoidable) costs of diseases. The results should be presented simply so as to be useful for on-the-field-workers, and should include the most common situations. Such estimates are all the more needed if the disease is complex and interacts with several production outcomes or other diseases. An example of such a calculation can be found in our study that estimated the financial impact of Schmallenberg virus in dairy cattle, cow-calf production, meat sheep and dairy sheep at around 11-23, 14-30, 6-20 and 12-37 euros per cow/ewe per year, respectively, depending on country, livestock system, and high or low impact of the disease.1, 2, 3 In another study, the total costs of subclinical ketosis (25% of prevalence in Europe) were estimated at 257 euros per dairy cow ill. These costs dropped by 12 % in case of no labor costs, and were only sensitive to the milk price in case of drastic changes of it.4 Other examples include estimating the total costs of passive immune transfer in calves (colostrum intake), or the costs of long calving intervals in cow-calf production.
Such studies are of interest for vets in their daily activities. They make sense for a basic use of economics in decision making. But these estimations are not sufficient per se, and users of these results also need economic theory to apply them adequately. Vets or advisors have to choose among the different scenarios of the economic estimations what can be facilitated by economic education. For example, choosing among the scenarios considering or not labor costs is specific to the farm situation encountered. The notion of opportunity costs is also to be included when applying such results in the field. As previously mentioned for the use of economic tools, published results should not be used blindly. The estimations of diseases costs that can be found in literature are necessary, and should be considered as a first step for concrete action, but it also creates the need to train vets and vet students in economics so as to allow them to make the best use of these estimated costs.
Toulouse Vet School, France