Feeding badgers is probably lowest on many TB affected farmers’ priorities, but ensuring they have adequate minerals could be key to eliminating TB, says a Glos farmer.
Dick Roper, of Broadfield Farms, Eastington, Northleach, believes the disease is caused by a selenium and vitamin E deficiency in both badgers and cattle.
This is triggered by the growing and feeding of maize, which is particularly low in these trace elements, he says.
Mr Roper’s suckler herd was first affected by TB in 1999 and quickly wiped it out at all bar one farm, where he was feeding maize silage.
“I could not understand why this yard kept on going down with it.”
After some research into trace elements in maize, he realised low selenium and vitamin E levels significantly reduced cow immune response.
An investigation into the history of TB also revealed a surprising link between the introduction of maize and incidence of TB, albeit with a few years’ time lag.
“Badgers love maize, so I wondered if they were suffering from the same deficiency.”
At this time Mr Roper was entering organic conversion on the farm, so he stopped growing all maize crops, including game cover, and instead fed grass silage.
He also decided to create his own mineral lick for badgers – including selenium and vitamin E in a molasses base – to try to boost their immunity.
“I believed if I could get my badgers healthy they wouldn’t pass TB on to the cattle,” he says.
“I put a lick by each of the four badger setts in the middle of our farm.
We have 3000 acres here which is ring-fenced with good natural boundaries, so it is the ideal place to hold such a trial.”
The home farm has been TB clear ever since, at a time when all Mr Roper’s neighbouring farmers have been closed down due to TB, with some never having tested clear in six years.
Mr Roper also sends some cattle away for summer grazing at a 109ha (270-acre) rented farm seven miles away.
This farm is surrounded by woods and badgers from other land criss-cross it.
“I’ve treated this like a control, because there is maize all around that farm and I cannot feed all the badgers crossing the land.”
For three of the past six years the cattle sent to that farm have gone down with TB.
“They’re the same cattle on the same diet, so what is different about that farm?”
Mr Roper kept his findings to himself, until he met Danny Goodwin-Jones of Trace Element Services.
He had reached the same theory and was successfully treating land with trace elements to reduce TB levels.
An American book on TB resistance further confirmed their theory, which, Mr Roper admits, seems too simple to be true.
“It cost me just 500 to create 1t of badger licks in spring 2000 and I still have some left.
What I would like now is for badgers in TB-free areas to be caught and tested to establish a profile of the normal trace element and mineral levels.
Then you can compare that with diseased badgers to either prove or disprove the link,” he adds.