Practices of smallholder livestock producers are perceived to pose biosecurity risks; however, these practices and the potential risks are not fully understood. The aim of the current study was to investigate biosecurity, disease management and communication networks of smallholder producers in Australia.
To achieve this aim a stakeholder consultation and a national cross-sectional study, using an electronic and postal survey, among smallholders keeping <50 cattle, sheep and/or pigs were used. A total of 38 stakeholder organisations were identified and contacted to gather information on their involvement with smallholders and ask their assistance with the distribution of the questionnaire to smallholders. This questionnaire consisted of five sections, including demographics and general husbandry, animal movements, biosecurity, herd/flock and health management, and communication networks.
In addition, focus group discussions with smallholders, using participatory epidemiology approaches, were conducted to triangulate previous findings and to obtain in depth information on producers' practices and attitudes. Three areas were selected for inclusion to the qualitative study: Riverina region (NSW), South Coast region (NSW) and Euroa/Benalla region (Victoria). During the focus groups, the following topics were discussed: 1. Diseases of importance; 2. Communication networks; 3. Information delivery systems; and, 4. Disease reporting.
Using information from the stakeholder consultation and the focus group discussions with smallholders, influence and interest maps were developed. The influence and interest maps were used to gain a better understanding of stakeholders' interest and influence on smallholders from the stakeholder and smallholder perspective. Through this process influential stakeholders as well as disagreement between the two groups were identified.
Twenty-eight stakeholders representing government, industry and community groups participated in the consultation, which identified a decline in research and resources for smallholders, a lack of a formal definition of this sector and variations in knowledge of the sector and level of direct association.
A total of 944 smallholders (16.0% response rate) responded to the questionnaire and 20 producers participated in the focus groups. Extra income and home consumption were the main reasons for keeping livestock, with over 40% being involved in other agricultural and environmental activities. Over a third of respondents had more than 30 years of experience with livestock. Although half of respondents had moderate to high understanding of the term biosecurity, implementation of biosecurity practices was limited and veterinary contact was low. For example, only 17% of respondents keep records of visitors and over 40% do not isolate incoming animals as they believe there is no need for their property.
Smallholders were mainly concerned with endemic diseases, with emergency animal diseases being a low priority. Animal welfare and cost were the main reasons of disease importance. Smallholders identified veterinarians, family, livestock agents and other producers as player stakeholders, with perceived high interest and influence on their practices; whilst government agencies and industry groups were perceived of having low influence and interest.
This study provides evidence of the heterogeneity among smallholders in relation to their husbandry, biosecurity and animal health practices and their communication networks and information requirements. The types and sources of information available to smallholders are crucial for engaging producers on biosecurity and the management of emergency animal diseases. Results from this study will support the development of improved knowledge transfer strategies to engage smallholders with biosecurity and health management, using targeted methods delivered by trusted stakeholders.