Don’t take the risk – vaccinate for bluetongue

Bluetongue vaccination may not be high up the agenda following two consecutive years with no disease but refusing to vaccinate could be foolish and risky.

This is the consensus of many vets and farmers in the south and east of England who believe failure to vaccinate animals, at either end of the country, could be putting livestock health and welfare in jeopardy.

And farmers who think the disease risk is low because of their geographical location should think again, according to vet Maarten Boers of The Livestock Partnership, West Sussex.

He says because of increasing livestock imports, chances of the disease appearing anywhere in the country are likely.

“A shortage of dairy replacements in the UK means more cattle are being imported and with this brings a risk of bluetongue, despite pre- and post-movement testing.”

This was demonstrated in the UK in September 2008 when 18 cattle imported from Germany were found to have the disease near Bishop Auckland, County Durham.

“This is why farmers can not afford to have a ‘wait and see’ vaccination policy. We know bluetongue can jump vast distances quickly, by which time deciding to vaccinate is too late, as animals do not have full immunity directly after vaccinating,” he says.

Mr Boers also believes this year could be more risky if the French opt for non-compulsory vaccination. “The French compulsory vaccination policy last year meant only a handful of cases were reported compared to the thousands of cases seen the previous year when vaccination wasn’t compulsory, which likely limited transmission of disease to the UK.”

But bluetongue vaccination doesn’t have to be an added chore, says Will Stevenson of Norfolk Farm Vets. “Unlike the first year, when bluetongue vaccination would have been an added task because animals were outside, now farmers can simply fit vaccination in with other procedures which require handling.”

And cost isn’t even an excuse for not vaccinating, he adds. “For about 55p a dose it is not worth taking the risk. The cost to a herd or flock with bluetongue far outweighs the cost of vaccination. Reduced fertility alone would be devastating in terms of cost.”

Mr Boers also urges farmers to ignore rumours about abortions and poor fertility post-vaccination. “Myths about abortions post-vaccination have never been proved and the risk of poor fertility is far higher if an animal was to get bluetongue.”

However, not all animals will need vaccinating this year, says Mr Boers. “Ewes that have had two years of vaccination have been shown to produce large amounts of antibodies in colostrum, giving 14 weeks’ immunity to lambs. So those lambs finishing before 14 weeks don’t need to be vaccinated,” he says.

Case Study

Alistair Bull Thelveton Farms, Diss, Norfolk

One farmer who won’t hesitate when it comes to bluetongue vaccination is Farmers Weekly Beef Farmer of the Year Alistair Bull (below).

Experiencing the devastation bluetongue can bring first-hand means there’s no chance he will take any risk.

“Farmers who haven’t seen the effects bluetongue can have don’t understand what all the fuss is about,” says Mr Bull, who had 60 cows badly infected in October 2007.

“Cows that were badly infected had swollen faces, were salivating, had sore feet as though they were standing on hot coals and wouldn’t let calves suckle. Although they appeared to recover, one month later a lot of the pregnant cows lost their calves and the repercussions of this were still being felt two years later,” he says.

Pregnancy rates in the infected herd fell from 93% to 84% in 2007, with more than 30 cows not in calf. But the problems didn’t stop there, explains Mr Bull. “Some calves were born bluetongue-positive the following year, some calves were born deformed and some breeding animals were harder to get back in calf.”

In 2008 the effects were still being felt with pregnancy rates still down at 89%. “This meant we had fewer cows in calf, less calves the following year and less calves to sell.”

Although pregnancy rates returned to 94% last year Mr Bull would never run the risk of not vaccinating. “We have already given cows their booster vaccine and this was given prior to calving with a trace element.”

Of the 1200 cattle at Thelveton Farms, no individual has ever suffered ill effects from the vaccine and Mr Bull urges every farmer to do it. “The risk is too big not to vaccinate, particularly as more cattle are being imported in to the UK.”