Wake-up call as disease costs dairy farmer £1m

A Cumbria dairy farmer is within days of slaughtering the remainder of his cows after battling for two years against a disease that has cost him almost £1m.

Duncan Maughan went back into milk production in 2011 with the intention of building up to a 220-cow herd. He’s now left with just 98 ailing cows after struggling to combat an infection of Mycoplasma bovis.

“For two years we’ve been dealing with sick and crippled cows, unexplained deaths, low yields and poor fertility,” said Mr Maughan.

What is Mycoplasma bovis?

Mycoplasma bovis is a major contributor to calf pneumonia and the main mycoplasma species identified in sick cattle in the UK.

It is also associated with mastitis, arthritis, meningitis, eye infections, abortion and infertility.

Infected animals may slowly deteriorate, become chronically ill, or even die.

“We’re still in the same situation and even though we know that Mycoplasma bovis is the cause, our cows aren’t getting any better.

“We’ve had times when it was impossible to get cows in for milking. Their joints were so stiff they just couldn’t take a single step.”

The disease was identified in his herd by chance after he asked for a Mycoplasma bovis test during a post-mortem examination on two dead cows and a calf.

But because there are currently no known effective treatments for the disease, Mr Maughan feels helpless to stop it.

This week a leading UK vet specialising in the study of mycoplasma bacteria admitted that Mycoplasma bovis was a serious disease that had remained “below the radar” for years, but was now being identified in more dairy herds.

Mr Maughan said: “As an industry we need to wake up to the fact that it is a major threat, but its insidious nature is masking how many herds have it and its rate of spread. It has brought my business to its knees.”

On Tuesday (19 August), his remaining 98 milkers were showing further signs of the disease returning to full strength at Gateshaw Mill Farm, in Cumrew, east Cumbria.

Despite the 98 cows eating 4.3t of silage a day and each cow getting 7kg of concentrate – “to keep them alive” – their daily yield averaged just 16.8 litres of milk.

“If we reduce the feed they go downhill in a matter of hours, but we can’t carry on like this much longer.”

The herd’s outbreak has caused severe arthritis, preventing cows walking or standing, inflamed udders with open sores, abscesses on the hips as well as swollen hocks and feet.

There has been a collapse in milk production, poor fertility and big rise in somatic cell counts.

Robin Nicholas of the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, who specialises in research into Mycoplasma bovis, said vets often failed to diagnose the disease because it isn’t thoroughly covered during veterinary training.

“But we are now seeing a greater awareness of the occurrence of Mycoplasma bovis, particularly in the north of England.

“It’s a disease that has been below the radar and doesn’t respond to antibiotic treatment like other bacteria,” he said.

“It doesn’t travel far, so it tends to be introduced into herds by bought-in animals. Although screening these cattle isn’t 100% effective, it will help identify those carrying Mycoplasma bovis. The alternative is ending up trying to treat infected cattle with medication or vaccine.”

Prof Nicholas said the disease can manifest itself in many ways, but the most common symptoms are pneumonia, arthritis and mastitis.

Cumbria case ‘tip of the iceberg’

Derbyshire dairy cow nutritionist Colin Orr has completed a special study of Mycoplasma bovis.

He has been successful in tackling the disease in some herds when it’s caught in the early stages by working in conjunction with the farm vet and applying complex nutritional treatments.

“I’ve been dealing with Mycoplasma bovis cases in Wales, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire. What we’re seeing may be the tip of the iceberg. This is a very complicated health issue about which we still don’t know a great deal.

“Mycoplasma bovis occurs naturally in the respiratory tract of all cows, but it probably doesn’t begin to affect the health of the cow because there is a severe mutation of the bacteria, but more likely because there’s been a depression in the cow’s immunity.”

“This is a pathogen posing a serious economic risk to the dairy industry, but we still aren’t really looking for it.”

Do you believe your cows may be suffering from Mycoplasma bovis? 
If so, contact the newsdesk on 
020 8652 4905 or email philip.case@rbi.co.uk