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A disease of intensive farming

MagazineMay 2001 (Vol. 12 Issue 2)A disease of intensive farming

Albert Howard, an Honorary Fellow of the Imperial College of Science, was formerly the Director of the Institute of Plant Industry and Agricultural Adviser to States in Central India and Rajputana

Albert Howard, an Honorary Fellow of the Imperial College of Science, was formerly the Director of the Institute of Plant Industry and Agricultural Adviser to States in Central India and Rajputana. His many years of farming experience and research into cattle disease and health led him to believe that FMD is an opportunistic disease arising as a result of poor diet combined with intensive, and therefore unhealthy, farming methods.

In his book Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease (Faber and Faber, 1945), he writes: "About the year 1910, after five years' first hand experience of crop production under Indian conditions, I became convinced that. . .the correct method of dealing with disease. . .is not to destroy the parasite, but to make use of it for tuning up agricultural practice.". . .I therefore put forward a request to have my own work cattle, so that my small farm of seventy five acres could be a self contained unit. I was anxious to select my own animals, to design their accommodation, and to arrange for their feeding, hygiene, and management. Then it would be possible to see: (1) what the effect of properly grown food would be on the well fed working animal; and (2) how such livestock would react to infectious diseases. [Eventually] I was allowed six pairs of oxen.

". . .My animals were most carefully selected for the work they had to do and for the local climate. Everything was done to provide them with suitable housing and with fresh green fodder, silage, and grain, all produced from fertile soil. They soon got into good fettle and began to be in demand at the neighbouring agricultural shows, not as competitors for prizes, but as examples of what an Indian ox should look like.

"The stage was then set for the project I had in view, namely, to watch the reaction of these well chosen and well fed oxen to diseases like rinderpest, septicaemia, and foot and mouth disease, which frequently devastated the countryside and sometimes attacked the large herds of cattle maintained on the Pusa Estate. I always felt that the real cause of such epidemics was either starvation, due to the intense pressure of the bovine population on the limited food supply, or, when food was adequate, to mistakes in feeding and management.

"The working ox must always have not only good fodder and forage, but ample time for chewing the cud, for rest, and for digestion. The grain ration is also important, as well as a little fresh green food all produced by intensive methods of farming. Access to clean fresh water must also be provided. The coat of the working animal must be kept clean and free from dung.

"The next step was to discourage the official veterinary surgeons who often visited Pusa from inoculating these animals with various vaccines. . .

"My animals then had to be brought in contact with diseased stock. This was done by allowing them: (1) to use the common pastures at Pusa, on which diseased cattle sometimes grazed, and (2) to come in direct contact with foot and mouth disease. This latter was easy, as my small farmyard was only separated from one of the large cattlesheds of the Pusa Estate by a low hedge over which the animals could rub noses. I have often seen this occur between my oxen and foot and mouth cases. Nothing happened. The healthy, well fed animals reacted to this disease exactly as suitable varieties of crops, when properly grown, did to insect and fungus pests no infection took place.

"Neither did any infection occur as the result of my oxen using the common pastures. This experiment was repeated year after year between 1910 and 1923. . .

"The most complete demonstration of the principle that soil fertility is the basis of health in working animals took place at the Institute of Plant Industry at Indore, where twenty pairs of oxen were maintained. Again, the greatest care was taken to select sound animals to start with, to provide them with a good water supply, a comfortable, well ventilated shed, and plenty of nutritious food, all raised on humus filled soil. One detail of cattleshed management was the provision of a floor of beaten earth, which is much more restful for the cloven hoof than a cement or brick floor. This was changed every three months. . .The result of all this was a complete absence of foot and mouth and other diseases for a period of six years.

"This experience, covering a period of twenty six years at three widely separated centres Pusa in Bihar and Orissa, Quetta on the Western Frontier, and Indore in Central India convinced me that foot and mouth disease is a consequence of malnutrition pure and simple, and that the remedies which have been devised in countries like Great Britain to deal with the trouble, namely, the slaughter of the affected animals, are both superficial and also inadmissible."


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