Veterinary student placement shows connection between animal health and international development

An award has enabled final year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student Peter Richardson to take part in a research project to improve the health and welfare of animals in Myanmar, and the lives of the farmers that rely on them.

With funding from a 2019 Crawford Fund Student Award, he contributed to a pilot study for a large-scale study into livestock health, feeding practices and production systems in the Central Dry Zone of Myanmar.

The Crawford Fund Student Awards support and encourage the next generation of Australians in study, careers and volunteering in international agricultural research; applications for the 2020 round are open until 3 April.

Peter and the researchers visited villages in Myanmar’s Central Dry Zone to collect data on animal health and production systems; conduct interviews to gain an understanding of village structure, economics and the role of women; and collect blood samples from animals to provide insight into nutrition and parasitic disease.

Peter extracting a blood sample as part of the pilot study into ruminant health in Myanmar.

“This study gave insight into the feeding practices of farmers in these regions and identification of innovative farmers who might be willing to participate in feeding trials as a component of the larger research project, where there is a huge potential to improve livestock health and growth,” he says.

That project, “Improving farmer livelihoods by developing market-oriented small ruminant production systems in Myanmar”, is a collaboration between the University of Melbourne’s School of Population and Global Health, Yezin Agricultural University and the Myanmar Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department of the University of Veterinary Science. It is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

The study indicates inadequate animal nutrition is a key limiting factor in these livestock systems, says project leader Dr Angus Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Ruminant Production and Medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences and One Health and Livelihood Security leader in the Nossal Institute for Global Health.

He says understanding current animal management systems, challenges to livestock health and nutrition and the value of these animals to the producer is vital in developing management plans to improve animal nutrition to increase productivity, and in turn helping farming families to achieve better socioeconomic outcomes.

“The work Peter and the rest of the team did in this study helped us understand background health issues and gave an insight into the feeding practices of smallholder farmers in these regions, which will help to drive the next stage of the research – trialling animal management changes that these farmers can implement to improve livestock health and growth,” Dr Campbell says.

Veterinary student Peter Richardson (centre, grey tee shirt) with Dr Angus Campbell (centre, green and white shirt) and other members of the Australian and Burmese teams involved in the village surveys in Myanmar.

All Melbourne Doctor of Veterinary Medicine students take a range of placements to develop their understanding of veterinary clinical practice in the final years of their degree.

Peter says the project gave him a greater appreciation for both the importance of animal nutrition to productivity, and for the importance of working closely with farmers to find solutions to problems which they could put into practice.

“While results are still pending, it is apparent that animal nutrition is a key limiting factor with negative influences on animal growth, health and reproduction,” he said.

“I had learned of this throughout my studies, but it was eye-opening to see how stark the differences in animal health, growth and reproduction were in Myanmar compared to those in Australia.

“On a more personal level, I gained great insight into the importance of good communication in maintaining good relationships with clients, which is something that I was already aware of, but my experiences reinforced this.”

Most smallholder farms are family businesses, with all family members playing a role in, and benefiting from, the income from animal agriculture.

Veterinary student Peter Richardson.

Dr Campbell says families and communities which make more money from farming can afford to invest in their future.

“This means not just that they can invest to grow their businesses, but that their children can stay in education for longer, or that family members can see a doctor if they are sick, for example,” Dr Campbell says.

“In this way, the health and welfare of the family is inextricably linked to the health and welfare of their animals.”

Peter says he found the opportunity to apply himself in a research project that contributes to the development of these communities very rewarding.

“I have taken away more than simply the experience of working in remote regions of a developing country,” Peter says.

“I have been strongly influenced by the kindness and generosity of people who have to work exceptionally hard just to feed their family. It truly was an eye-opening experience.”

Peter Richardson thanks the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne, the University of Veterinary Science in Myanmar, the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department in Myanmar and all of the villages in the Central Dry Zone that agreed to participate in this project, and particularly the Crawford Fund, which made these experiences possible with a 2019 Crawford Fund Student Award.

Applications for the 2020 Crawford Fund Student Awards are open until Friday 3 April.

Banner image: A goatherd in Bagan in Myanmar’s Central Dry Zone. Photo: Jennifer Stahn. All other images supplied.