5 April 1996

It took us two years to re-establish the herd

What is needed to restore consumer confidence in beef? We seek producer opinion on whether infected herds should be slaughtered. Here, Rebecca Austin talks to an Irish producer whose entire herd had to be culled

IRISH producer Mike Magan, who milks 200 cows at Killashee, Co Longford, bought in a milking heifer from Cumbria in 1987. During the winter of 1990, she started to stumble, appeared excited, and semi-dazed. Mr Magan thought that she had meningitis.

Treatment was unsuccessful so he had her put down. He felt it prudent to send her head off to the regional veterinary laboratory for examination. BSE was diagnosed.

The herd was placed under restriction immediately, which prevented cows moving on or off the farm. Intensive negotiations followed with department officials over individual cow valuations. These reflected each animals current market value based on pedigree and milk records. For example, an average second calver in his Bunacloy herd was valued at £1300. He received no payment for consequential loss.

In all, the episode cost the Magans about £100,000. That excludes the value of 50 implanted embryos which had been sourced from top genetic US herds.

"Things couldnt happen quickly enough at this point. The sooner the cows and calves left the farm the better. You feel as though your whole soul is being sucked out," says Mr Magan. "There was no logic in treating a mastitis case while we were waiting for the factories to come and take away animals, but I couldnt help myself."

Once factories had been paid to take the 325-head of stock, there followed two days when lorries moved in and out of the farmyard continually loading up the herd – right down to two-week old calves.

At this point Mr Magan had to leave the farm. "I was angry and frustrated this was happening when there was no logical reason and nobody could give me scientific or veterinary reasoning." He went to the Scottish Winter Fair. Unfortunately, at this time a close friend of his was killed accidentally. "At that moment I managed to put my situation in perpective," says Mr Magan. "It was the toughest moment.

"But you have to put the emotional loss behind you and plan for the future."

Ironically, when Mr Magan received the compensation cheque he was in his strongest position financially ever. "I probably made a few mistakes at this point," says Mr Magan. "If anybody asked my advice I would suggest they use the money to get back into milk production, rather than buying tractors. You have to get cash flow back because that is the killer in any business. Limit yourself to a couple of months of negative cash flow and you will come through OK."

He started to source mainly in-calf heifers from Canada and Denmark. Others, mostly second lactation cows, came from within the Republic. The whole operation was planned so most cows were freshly calved when Mr Magan started milking after a four-month break. That was five years ago.

Settling the new herd was difficult. They had to establish a pecking order and adjust to a new management system. "We didnt place enough emphasis on all this," says Mr Magan.

"We thought these high merit cows would manage on loads of lush grass. But we had trouble getting enough dry matter into them as they were reared for a higher concentrate-based system. We should have continued supplementing throughout the summer but there was an abundance of grass due to our rest period. As a result we had animals way under-performing, as well as fertility problems."

It took two years to re-establish the same herd size and four to claw back the herd profile. Cows currently average 7500 litres at 4% fat and 3.35% protein.

With hindsight Mr Magan believes slaughtering infected herds is the best policy and one which should be adopted on the mainland to restore public confidence in beef. That is despite lack of scientific or veterinary evidence to back up such an approach.

Ideally consequential loss would be fair, but difficult to establish, he concedes. Instead he ventures the government should pay out the equivalent of three months milk income. "People will be happy to help out, but you need farmers goodwill. And they are generally governed by their pocket, not national interest."


&#8226 First case identified 1989.

&#8226 To date 124 cases – 12 of these UK imports.

&#8226 Whole herd slaughter policy introduced summer 1990.

&#8226 Condemned stock valued on pedigree and milk records – no consequential loss available.

&#8226 Meat and bone meal banned to ruminants since 1990.

&#8226 Prior to last week cattle not diagnosed with BSE, but with a condemned herd, entered food chain. Now all carcasses condemned.

&#8226 Jim Deeniham, Minister of State, advocates a common policy for northern and southern Ireland on future beef marketing.


EIRE BSE FACTS

Irish producer Mike Magan: Slaughter is best policy to restore confidence.