28 April 1995

Testing costs cut deep

When TB strikes it can hit livestock farms hard. Rebecca Austin visited a Glos farm which has battled with the problem for seven years and reports the forthright views of a local vet

THE cost of living with TB testing over the past seven years is estimated at £111,500 for one Glos farming partnership.

Brothers Jan and Roger Rowe have also been forced to change their farming policy from that of a profitable business selling in-calf Friesian heifers to a beef finishing enterprise.

As a result Jan Rowe seeks full compensation for farmers who have to live with TB outbreaks in problem areas such as the Cotswolds and the south west.

Mr Rowe milks 180 cows off 214ha (530 acres) – 81ha (200 acres) of which are down to cereals – at Whalley Farm, Whittington, Cheltenham. The farm runs to 305m (1000ft) on the Cotswold escarpment and offers a perfect environment for badgers to settle.

In 1985 three dead badgers were taken from the area to be tested for TB at Gloucesters Veterinary Investigation centre. All three came back positive. The next year the farm was issued with its first movement restriction order after some of the cattle reacted to a routine TB test. This was the start of a costly pattern which has yet to be resolved (table 1).

At the end of March Mr Rowe had his latest annual test. Of the 500 head of cattle on the farm 11 reacted positively, placing another movement restriction on the farm for at least two months.

"We run a tight seasonal calving herd from August to December," says Mr Rowe. "All the cows used to be bred back to Friesians and the in-calf heifers not kept on as replacements were sold for good money. They were grazed on our permanent pasture and banks and made a better return than beef cattle.

"Then we were shut up for 15 months starting in 1989 and were immediately unable to sell young bull calves. So we had to establish a beef enterprise. At the same time the farm was carrying 70 in-calf heifers and only 45 were needed as replacements. That meant we were left with extra stock which created difficulties as we didnt have enough quota, let alone lying space or feed. It is bad enough managing quotas but coping with quotas and TB is infernally difficult."

Mr Rowe was forced to just rear replacements for the closed herd and had to forgo the £400 to £500 a head premium for in-calf dairy cows over finished cattle.

Eventually £25,000 was invested in new buildings to house the growing beef enterprise and now there are 500 head of cattle on the farm. Less corn is grown to enable him to harvest more grass silage.

Any cattle sold during movement restrictions go to MAFF-licensed outlets only and, as Mr Rowe says, "they see you coming", so prices are not at their best, although he admits they have improved in recent years because of the large number of farms infected. Slaughtered stock is only compensated at 75% of the market value by MAFF. "That is peanuts compared with the cost of the movement restriction that goes with it – and this loss is what we want compensation for.

"Currently the cost is borne by farmers for a disease carried by an animal which is probably the most protected in this country," he says. "I like badgers but I dont like living with the disease."

Double-fenced boundaries

Mr Rowe had already double-fenced all boundary fields before his first TB outbreak. He has since taken other measures such as fencing off setts and badger latrines.

He and his neighbours are noticing more badger activity than they can ever remember.

And the evidence that TB is carried by badgers is overwhelming, says Mr Rowe. "We have watched TB come towards us down the escarpment from Stroud, Bristol and Thornbury since the 1970s. The disease is moving with badger numbers. In two earlier breakdowns about 120 badgers were trapped on 304ha (750 acres) between my land and that of a neighbour. That equates to one badger for every five cattle. Of those about 25% were infected.

"The 11 cattle which reacted to the latest test had been kept in two distinct groups all of their lives. They had been on different areas of the farm, so, potentially, they have been infected by two distinct badger groups.

More trapping

"It is difficult to know what the answer is, but all us farmers want more effort put into trapping badgers," says Mr Rowe. He suggests:

lWider trapping area around persistent problem farms.

lNeed for consequential loss compensation and 100% market value compensation in problem areas.

lMore research into live test and vaccination for badgers.

lDevelop blood test for cattle to avoid unnecessary handling and stress.

"MAFF is so behind with badger trapping that, in some cases, there is a six- to 10-month gap between a breakdown and trapping," he adds. "We shall have to turn our stock out on to pasture which is riddled with badgers that we know have TB. A badger vaccine, with food used as a vector, is the main answer. Otherwise TB in cattle will continue. MAFF knows the problem but it needs more funding from the Treasury."


Table 2: Estimated cost of TB testing at Whalley Farms from Mar 1986 to Dec 1994

Testing

Labour: Six people for two days£450 a test

Stress:Loss of milk }

Loss of fertility }£500 to £1000

Loss of growth }say, £1,100 a test

16 six-monthly tests£16,500

Direct movement restriction costs

Extra housing£25,000

FoodVariable

Loss of sale value on fat cows= £90 an animal£10,000

and beef cattle through limited

MAFF-licensed outlets over two years

Change of farming policy

Now selling 30 beef heifers a year instead of 30 in-calf heifers

Last three years loss £500 a head£45,000

Previous two years loss £200 a head£12,000

Insurance costs

Used to cost £220 every two years for £400 an animal.

Now £900 a year for £200 an animal and likely to increase

by about £600 a year if any more claims£3,000

Total£111,950


Table 1: Whalley Farm -movement restriction periods

Mar 95- ?

Dec 93toFeb 94

Jun 91toAug 91

Jan 89toMar 90

Mar 86 to Aug 86

Living with TB testing for the past seven years has cost Glos farmer Jan Rowe (right) over £100,000. He is now pressing for full compensation.