STRAIGHT-shooting beef producer Zanda McDonald is about to pull the trigger on an animal welfare revolution.
On the front-foot and fearless, the North West Queensland trailblazer is thrusting his massive operation into the fiery cauldron of the animal welfare debate with a bold bid to deliver safe, affordable and effective pain relief treatments for use in on-farm surgical procedures.
"After three rounds of trial work we now believe we have the right recipe that will work in the hot, dusty conditions of Northern Australia," he said.
"We believe we're on the front foot and in a good position to be able to tell our story about what we're doing in regard to animal welfare."
Unnerved by last year's public outcry over live cattle exports, the co-director of MDH Pty Ltd is determined to safeguard the reputation of his enterprise in the face of animal activist scrutiny he believes will inevitably focus on dehorning, hot iron branding and castration across all cattle properties throughout Northern Australia.
Mr McDonald, who has started to go public with the development in recent weeks as confidence builds in the analgesic formula, has been involved in large-scale trials near his home base at Devoncourt, Cloncurry with the University of Sydney and chemical supplier, Bayer.
Also closely involved in the product's development has been Chick Olsson, a former director of Australian Wool Innovation and co-director of Animal Ethics, a company he founded in the wake of the sustained attack woolgrowers suffered at the hands of animal rights groups over the practice of mulesing, a surgical procedure performed on sheep to protect them from fly-strike.
It was during that bruising battle that Mr Olsson and co Animal Ethics director Dr Meredith Shiel - a paediatrician and woolgrower - developed the spray-on analgesic Tri-Solfen, before selling the manufacturing and marketing rights to Bayer.
Uptake of Tri-Solfen among woolgrowers has been huge, effectively blunting the animal activist attacks and thwarting the consumer backlash over cruelty concerns, while still allowing woolgrowers to continue the tail-docking and mulesing operation, an essential farmer intervention to provide life-long protection against breech strike.
As Mr Olsson points out, explaining the bloody images of mulesing on welfare activist websites remains an enormous challenge for producers. And convincing international wool buyers and their urban wool consumers that mulesing is still a necessity on many Australian farms and needs to continue until the wrinkle phenotype of sheep is altered is also an insurmountable challenge.
"It's a battle that we just couldn't win," he said.
"Fortunately the availability of pain management for such procedures has significantly changed this debate as it has shown that when a pain relief option is available for mulesing, the majority of producers adopt it. This has been a very good news story for Australian woolgrowers."
Mr Olsson said the beef industry needed to take similar steps and learn from the mistakes the Australian wool industry made when it first came under the animal rights assault.
"The beef industry has to learn from what the sheep industry went through. We started off trying to sue animal rights groups rather than trying to address the issue and take a good, long look at how bad some of our practices look to consumers," he said.
"Whether you're selling beef to international wholesalers or wool to international fashion houses, it's hard enough to get that market access without animal rights groups smashing you in the media.
"We have an opportunity to get on the front foot here and show beef consumers that we are serious about improving animal welfare on-farm."
For Mr McDonald, who recently became Australia's largest independent meat retailer with the purchase of the Super Butcher chain in South East Queensland, the message of animal welfare improvements will be employed as marketing devices to pull more customers through the doors.
"I'm sure we will get decreased mortality using Tri-Solfen on the horns, although that is still an unknown benefit because I believe we lose more animals in Northern Australia through dehorning than is widely recognised - more than one or two per cent," he said.
"The real benefit though is in the marketing - to be able to tell our retail customers that we use pain relief. It's a fantastic story that hasn't been fully told or capitalised on in the Australian food retail space as yet. We're seeing a lot of companies, particularly in the US market beef underpinned by their animal welfare credentials and consumers are willing to pay a premium price for the product."
While consumers may be willing to pay higher premiums for 'ethically raised' beef, producers downstream in the supply chain will still need some convincing that the use of pain relief holds a return, especially when their utility and input costs continue to soar and increased compliance and regulation also pressure the bottom line.
"This is the rub with pain relief," Chick Olsson says. "It has to be easy and cost-effective for farmers to use. The biggest challenge we found in adapting the Tri-Solfen formula was getting it to stick to a dehorning wound and also getting the can to work upside down - there's a lot of little things you don't realise until you get in the field and start working it through hundreds of calves under several climatic conditions."
The end result is an adhesive foam with a similar consistency to shaving cream administered from an aerosol can. Mr Olsson said he was excited for producers, who may have a real shot at improving calf mortality rates by using the anaesthetic.
"The benefits are two-fold, the way I see it," he said. "Besides the ethical component, which has a gain at the marketing end, this has benefits at the production end, because it has the potential to reduce calf mortality rates by reducing bleeding and minimising the risk of infection.
"When it's so easy for things to get up on YouTube and in other forms of social media and get misrepresented and misconstrued - this really ameliorates those sorts of issues, because it stops the bleeding, helps with wound healing and obviously reduces pain."
The University of Sydney's Professor Peter Windsor has been working on the analgesia effects of Tri-Solfen on dehorning wounds for several years, mainly in dairy cattle. The experiments measured the sensitivity of dehorning wounds in young dairy calves, using wound sensitivity testing and scoring responses before and up to 24 hours after dehorning.
Prof Windsor said the calves treated with the topical anaesthetic formulation were less responsive to stimulation, indicating short-term pain relief was provided. We are now seeking funding from MLA to advance this work into northern beef cattle herds with the long term aim of providing a practical solution to improve welfare at calf marking," he said.
"There is much work to be done and the pathway to registered products useable by producers is a tortuous one, but we are optimistic it is achievable."
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.