9 August 2002

Testing cuts bring a surge

More than 1600 herds are

facing positive TB results

for the first time this year,

but what can they expect if

they fail and how far off is

a vaccine? Richard Allison

and Jonathan Long report

ABANDONING cattle TB testing last year during the foot-and-mouth crisis has led to a surge in cases, with one Wilts producer losing nearly 40% of the herd and up to £30,000.

Cows seemed to perform poorly last winter with dry matter intakes and milk yields lower than anticipated, says William Bailey. "There seemed to be no apparent reason for this poor performance until TB was found in the herd."

Testing identified 34 reactors, in the 150-cow herd, which were culled in late February. Out of these cows, 28 were found to have fairly advanced chest and gland lesions, probably explaining their poor performance last winter.

"Losing these animals led to a 1000 litres a day reduction in milk output, at a time when milk price was at 18.5p/litre. A further 18 cows were culled in March and four in July during routine testing.

More animals have been lost to TB at the unit over the past eight months than in the previous 50 years. Mr Bailey blames the suspension of TB testing during foot-and-mouth for the explosion in numbers.

"It was wrong to stop routine TB testing of herds in hot spot areas. We were due to be tested in March 2001, after recovering from a small outbreak the previous year."

He says DEFRA has a lot to answer for with the spread of TB in North Wilts over the past 12 months. "More than 85% of neighbouring units have also experienced breakdowns to differing degrees."

While cattle losses are compensated, there are substantial hidden costs including lost milk sales, movement restrictions and loss of breeding animals. Mr Bailey calculates the cost this year to be between £25,000 and £30,000, mostly due to lost milk sales.

"Consequential losses should be also compensated, we didnt ask cows to become infected with TB. It is a huge financial burden for any business to carry," he says.

Costs also include lost cash flow from 60 Holstein x Aberdeen Angus cross calves. They are normally sold as calves, but we have been unable to sell live animals since the start of the F&M outbreak.

"Fortunately, our youngstock are reared at a separate rented unit, minimising risk of becoming infected with TB. But TB also affects forward planning.

"If we receive clear results for the next two consecutive testing occasions, we will be able to sell the Angus calves in October. But do we sell them all straight away, or take a gamble and finish them with the risk of having a positive test at the routine test next spring preventing sale next summer?"

TB has also affected cattle breeding, with 60% of second and third lactation cows being lost, says Kite Consultings Edward Lott. "Most were in-calf to high quality Holstein bulls, which is disheartening to lose after all the effort. To save on semen costs, an Aberdeen Angus bull is now used on most cows instead of a proportion. All costs have to be justified with the huge burden of TB on cash flow."

Mr Lott believes one option is to operate a flying herd with all replacements bought in. With uncertainty about which cows could go down with TB, perhaps producers should consider whether to breed any replacements at all.

But only 66 cows were being milked this summer, which prompted Mr Bailey to buy in 45 cows from a herd in a TB-free area. "The DEFRA vet took some persuading to allow animals to be bought in, but it was my livelihood at risk."

Mr Bailey is convinced of the link with badgers. "Its like Piccadilly Circus at night with badgers running everywhere, in buildings with cows and in the yard. We also have several fields with badger setts, most are no longer used for grazing."

The unit is within one of the Krebs study areas with badgers trapped and monitored. "I dont mind being involved with the study. But a dead badger was found in a clamp this spring and it took many phone calls before any officials were interested in removing it. The badger was taken and tested, but I still havent been told whether it was infected, despite repeated requests."