last year meant vets were
taken away from TB
testing. But unfortunately,
this disease did not go
away and is now
causing headaches for
Robert Davies reports
TWO former presidents of the British Veterinary Association, who practise in TB hotspots, have publicly expressed deep concern about the number of TB cases they are finding.
Bob Stevenson from Usk in Monmouthshire and Francis Anthony, who is based at Bromyard in Herefordshire, have both reported a growing number of reactors in closed herds where there is good biosecurity.
Even before routine TB testing was suspended due to foot-and-mouth last year, incidence of the disease was on the increase. Between December 1999 and February 2000, 2.5% of tests on 12,485 previously TB-free farms confirmed the disease in at least one animal. During the same period a year later, 11,424 farm tests were carried out and TB was confirmed in 3.3% of 10,390 formerly clear units.
No new monthly statistics have been released since testing restarted, but producers and vets claim there has been a steep increase in the number of infected farms.
Separate figures for dairy and beef herds are not published, but farming unions say reactors are being found on more upland and hill farms than ever. Gareth Vaughan, vice-president of the Farmers Union of Wales, is one of many farming leaders who claim that a huge increase in the badger population is partly to blame.
"There are now so many badgers on lowland farms that young badgers are being forced to establish setts further up hills," suggests Mr Vaughan. "There is plenty of scientific evidence that badgers carry TB and they are taking it to farms that have not seen cases for 50 years."
Free so far
To date, the 50 sucklers Mr Vaughan runs at Bancyfelin, Dolfor, in north Powys have stayed free from the disease, but many of his neighbours herds have gone down.
He warns that the financial implications for rearing farms selling suckled calves and store cattle are serious. While milk producers and beef finishers can continue to generate incomes, producers of store and breeding cattle have to wait until they have two clear tests to market their cattle. This can take many months, and in a few cases, years.
There is also an immediate impact on the management of a livestock rearing farm where a reactor is found. As many discovered during the F&M epidemic, when a system geared towards selling store cattle in the spring is disrupted, feed bills rise, ewes and lambs can go short of grass, and it becomes difficult to conserve enough winter forage.
David Peers, a senior ADAS consultant, urges store cattle producers who have TB reactors on their farms to sit down and plan how to cope with stock they cannot sell.
"The first thing is to decide whether it is possible to finish them. When it is, the best option may be to get hold of some concentrate feed and long fodder and shift them as soon as possible. But when they are young and the finishing period will be long, they need to be managed to grow at a reasonable rate, without affecting other enterprises."
While ewes and lambs, and suckler cows with calves must get priority when grazing, increasing fertiliser inputs above the generally low average amounts used on many beef and sheep farms will provide grass for trapped cattle later in the season.
"Bedding will be a problem while they are in buildings. Straw is expensive and sawdust is far from cheap to use in yards. It is worth shopping around for alternatives like paper pulp and waste from fibre processing plants."
Dr Peers is concerned that pressure to get cattle out of sheds early without increasing stocking density could result in them paddling around badly poached sacrifice paddocks.
This could mean a lot of effort cleaning cattle when marketing becomes possible, he says.
"When it comes to feeding, there are some reasonable deals available on citrus, wheatfeed, maize gluten and other processing by-products. But I hope farmers will be sensible and take advice when feeding unfamiliar products."
Imposing tough movement restrictions on the growing number of infected farms in TB hot spots will also have a knock on effect on finishers who rely on buying good quality store cattle. Already, auctioneers report buyers are travelling long distances and paying premium prices to get the store cattle and suckled calves they want.
While farming unions campaign for the licensed culling of badgers on farms where reactors are found, there is a widespread belief that if it happens, it will not be before current DEFRA-sponsored testing is completed.
TB cases are occuring even in closed herds with good biosecurity, warns Bob Stevenson.
• Finish cattle quickly.
• Use fertiliser to boost grass growth.
• Check alternative feed options.
PRODUCERS who want to keep TB at bay will have to adopt defensive biosecurity measures. These include the erection of often expensive fences to keep badgers away from cattle, the buildings they use and the feed they eat.
Herds closed for more than a generation are now going down with TB, but they are still good places to source new animals.
The biosecurity fact sheet produced by the DEFRA funded Livestock Knowledge Transfer initiative urges beef producers to avoid hiring bulls, and to limit and control access of vehicles and visitors to their farms.
Vets constantly remind clients that TB is probably most commonly spread within herds and between farms by cattle to cattle contact, but that humans as well as badgers can also carry the disease. *