Agriculture will play a critical role in the economic recovery of South Africa in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of this, animal health company, Zoetis, intends introducing a plethora of first world innovations that will help local farmers to increase productivity and, ultimately, contribute towards food security in the region.
“We want to be more than just a company that delivers medicines. Most pharmaceutical companies come from that base, selling drugs to address specific diseases. We want to be involved in the complexities of producing profitable and healthy livestock across the entire value chain and across the whole continuum of care,” says Dr Ralf Patzelt, Business Unit Director for Zoetis South Africa.
Zoetis sees digital innovation, diagnostics, genetic testing and bio devices as important tools to help veterinarians and farmers make better healthcare decisions informed by data. The continuous improvement of digital and diagnostic technologies paves the way for predicting disease in livestock, ushering in the possibilities of ‘precision animal farming’.
Patzelt says that expanding point-of-care diagnostics will make the detection of disease both faster and more accurate.
At the same time, a growing portfolio of genomic tests enables farmers to select for specific genetic traits in beef and dairy cattle. These not only identify the most productive animals but also allow farmers to predict which animals may have greater resilience to common and costly diseases and to choose animals that can help improve the health of their herds.
The company’s portfolio of bio devices sets the standard in vaccination technology and includes sophisticated robotics and automation. This is particularly pertinent in the poultry industry where Zoetis provides a growing range of hatchery solutions. Patzelt explains that, now, vaccines can be applied to one day old chicks or even, at hatchery level, to eggs. “We can provide solutions and machines that can actually do the in-ovo application.”
Another ground-breaking innovation that Patzelt is confident will come to South Africa is data analytic systems that will enable farmers to track the movement and health of individual animals.
“Internationally, we are involved in a very interesting project that will enable us to provide farmers with sensors for individual cows to monitor movement, body temperatures, detect rumination and assess overall health.”
Motivated by the need for ongoing innovation when it comes to providing effective solutions across the continuum of care, Zoetis invested approximately $450 million in research and development during the 2019 financial year. Over the past five years, more than 1 100 new products and innovations have come to the world market and, ultimately, to Africa¹.
Patzelt says local farmers face similar challenges to their international counterparts. “Globally, farmers have to do more with less. Powerful trends such as human population growth, a rising middle class in developing markets and a steady migration of people from rural communities to urban centres are driving demand for animal health products and services. Our customers are challenged by increasingly limited natural resources, more frequent emerging infectious diseases and other constraints.”
These include dealing with consumers’ sustainability, food safety and animal welfare concerns.
“That means they will have to be more productive whilst still responding to pressure from many parts of society to use less antibiotics and be more careful about the utilisation of financial and environmental resources. This makes for a very challenging environment,” says Patzelt.
He believes that the inevitable result will be intensification of agriculture with many farms being corporatised and run more like businesses.
South African farmers, in particular, have also had to contend with debilitating droughts and changing rainfall patterns associated with climate change. “We have been seeing a continuous reduction in the number of dairy farms. In South Africa, the number of producers dropped by 65 percent between January 2009 and August 2009. Yet, milk production increased by 31% between 2009 and 2018 and milk production per producer rose by 273%,” says Patzelt.²
At the same time, the dairy industry is moving from inland provinces like the Free State to coastal areas such as the Eastern and Western Cape where rainfall is better and grazing more favourable.
“The increased use of technology and higher production is not necessarily bad for animals. To be productive, they have to be healthy and comfortable. They will still graze for eight hours a day, but behind the scenes, there’s a lot happening.”
Through providing customised, combined solutions for farmers, Zoetis aims to provide constructive solutions and boost a sector which has seen its contribution to South Africa’s GDP and job creation flagging over the past years.
1. Presentation by Zoetis CEO, Kirstin Peck, January 14, 2020.
2. The South African Dairy situation, MPO, November 2009