Counting the cost of infection in our cattle

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Bovine TB is rarely out of the news at the moment. I know only too well of the devastating effect it has on otherwise healthy cattle, plus the knock on effect on the farm business.

The first case of TB on our farm was detected by a routine test in 1999 when eight cows were found to be infected.

Although cattle were then occasionally brought on to the farm, these eight were all homebred and the vet concluded they had almost certainly contracted the TB from badgers.

The farm adjoins several blocks of woodland which contain badger setts – the badgers come and feed on grubs in the pastures where the cattle graze.

As the badgers feed they shed infection in their urine on to the grass which the cows subsequently eat.

With the cows grazing over 300 acres it is impossible to keep them out of the fields and if we did they would starve.

We have reduced the risk of contact with badgers in the yards and buildings where the cattle live in winter, but given a badger can squeeze through any gap bigger than three inches we can’t even stop them completely there.

Since February 2011 we have had to slaughter a total of 75 cows.

Yes, we get compensation for the cattle, but there is nothing for the loss of milk these cows would have produced, which is our main income.

There is much talk of vaccination being an alternative to controlling badgers. Sadly for the foreseeable future it is not because it won’t cure infected animals. However it does have a place in certain areas. It is most likely to have a positive effect further north in the county, where badgers are currently free of TB, to try and reduce the rate of spread. No significant cattle keeping country in the world has tackled TB without controlling it in wildlife. The vaccination trials in Wales are just that – there are no results yet to show it will reduce the spread to cattle.

For decades we and many other farms have tackled TB in cattle, eliminated it from our herds only to find them being re-infected. The worst part is the worry before each test. As one vet said, ‘TB is no good for man nor beast’.

By Michael Oulton, a dairy farmer in Ambergate