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Making a mark on the welfare of animals in agriculture

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LIVESTOCK contractor Lisa Virgona spends seven months of the year doing work that many women – and men – would find challenging. As a livestock contractor she heads a team that prepares 150,000 lambs per year to live healthy lives through marking, mulesing and vaccinating against risks including Ovine Johnes Disease (OJD).

Being a livestock contractor carries unusual risks – and not from slipping knives. “Believe it or not, by far the most danger comes from the OJD vaccination,’ said Lisa. “If you accidently inject yourself with that, it can potentially have serious consequences.” Lisa found herself as district livestock contractor for sheep producers in Western Victoria almost by accident. “I always wanted to work on farms, which is why I did a school-based farming apprenticeship as well as a degree, but somehow I never imagined myself as a mulesing contractor,” she said.

The turning point came when, while still doing her school-based farm apprenticeship, Lisa met Roydan Barnett, who had been mulesing sheep for more than 50 years. Over the following few years she worked with Roydan on and off and learned the ropes, eventually taking over the business from him.

“Ten years ago when I was starting out, there weren’t that many women working hands on in agriculture. The first farm I worked on had never employed a woman before, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Then I took over Royden’s business and now I’m in a role that is critical for the farmers in my area.” Lisa feels she carries a significant responsibility for the animals and the famers in her district.

“The truth is, no one really wants to do my work. But it’s so important! Mulesing is absolutely essential for sheep wellbeing, and those farmers who stopped doing it quickly took it up again once their sheep became flyblown and died,” she said. “The farmers around here rely on me. Who else would do it? There are so few people around, and it’s a tough job.”

The welfare of farm animals is another thing Lisa has seen change over the past decade.

“Attitudes to animal welfare have changed drastically, with the care of animals now taking a far higher priority,” she said.

“Mulesing is a good example. It is essential for the welfare of sheep and has been done for decades, but there is no doubt the procedure affects lambs – you could see the reduced movement and pain-related behaviours such as kicking and flopping. “Once Tri-Solfen became available, the lambs were up and about in five seconds, eating and running back to their mothers. The difference is so huge it’s almost unbelievable.” Lisa started showing farmers the difference that pain relief could make by using her own Tri-Solfen on one lamb, and proceeding without TriSolfen on the next.

“When they see one get sprayed and the next one not, and the difference in the response is so great – well, they can’t argue with it. “To those who say the lambs won’t die without it – I remind them that if lambs don’t mother up again quickly, they can die!”

One of Lisa’s clients, who she thought would never adopt pain relief, watched her trial. His farm was steep, and lambs sometimes struggled to walk back up the hill to their paddock after mulesing.

“It’s all visual – what a farmer can see with his or her own eyes. Once he saw the lambs run back to the paddock, find their mothers and eat – that made the difference,” said Lisa. “Now he’s using it. “I am someone who is passionate about animal welfare and I love my dogs and horses. I believe if you give to animals, they give back to you. When I’m dealing with animals I always take that extra level of care. “I wouldn’t still be mulesing lambs if Tri-Solfen wasn’t available.”