Coronavirus: Youngstock exemption eases TB testing pressure

Farm leaders have welcomed news that calves under 180 days are now temporarily exempt from bovine TB testing in unrestricted herds.

The latest exemption applies only where testing cannot take place safely under the current Covid-19 restrictions. Official veterinarians can also request backdating this measure to the start of lockdown on 23 March. 

The new guidelines, which apply in both England and Wales, received ministerial clearance prior to this temporary exemption being implemented. 

See also: How will TB tests work during the coronavirus pandemic?

Under the derogation, movement restrictions will not be placed on officially TB-free (OTF) herds if cattle under 180 days are left untested because the vet has judged that testing cannot be conducted in line with Covid-19 social distancing guidelines. 

However, exempted calves would still need a pre-movement test if they are to move off a holding, where that move would normally require it.

‘Pragmatic’ approach

The Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) welcomed the joint announcement by the UK and Welsh governments, describing it as “pragmatic”.

“Many of our farmer members are in the Covid-19 high-risk category due to their age and it is therefore important that the rules around TB testing do not risk the health of our key workers producing food during this pandemic,” said FUW senior policy officer Hazel Wright.

“It is extremely difficult to maintain social distancing rules when testing young calves for bovine TB and this derogation is therefore extremely welcome.

“It will come as a huge relief to those farmers facing the conflict of adhering to TB rules while also trying to adhere to social distancing rules and protect themselves and their family from illness.” 

A spokesman for the British Cattle Veterinary Association said: “ This temporary exemption is a really positive move and hopefully strikes a balance between keeping everyone safe, maintaining the food chain, and bTB surveillance, while allowing vets the flexibility to make informed testing decisions on farm, without the pressure of putting some farms under suspension.”

Farm vets take special measures over coronavirus

Farm vets are making special efforts to make sure they adhere to coronavirus restrictions when TB testing and treating cattle.

Social distancing rules requiring people to keep 2m apart are not always easy to maintain when handling livestock. But vets say they are still managing to take precautions to prevent the virus from spreading when visiting farms.

“It can be very difficult,” said Oliver Hodgkinson, of Trefaldwyn Vets in Montgomery, mid-Wales. “When you are dealing with adult cattle it is easier. If you go at the head of the cow and the farmer goes at the back end, then there is about a 2m gap.

“But when you have a sick calf, then it does become a lot more challenging. If we have to handle a calf and the farmer has to hold the calf, we try to do it in the open air and turn our backs to each other. It’s about being sensible.”

Mr Hodgkinson – who was Farmers Weekly Livestock Adviser of the Year in 2018 – said he likes to be self-sufficient when TB testing. This means nobody else is at the front of the crush when he is dealing with each animal.