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Farming

No direct contact needed for bTB

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Prof Rosie Woodroffe: ‘Hard to offer farmers advice’

Prof Rosie Woodroffe: ‘Hard to offer farmers advice’

NEW findings from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Imperial College London suggest that badgers and cattle rarely meet – and that direct contact between the two is not a likely source of transmission of bovine TB. 

The stated aim of the badger culls, which began as pilots intended to trial ‘controlled shooting’ of free running badgers in two areas of South West England, but were expanded to include the more expensive trap-and-shoot and a new cull zone before the initial trial period had finished, was to reduce the ‘wildlife reservoir’ of bovine TB in badgers.

The new research shows that while badgers do favour cattle pasture as a habitat, they typically avoid cattle themselves and rarely get close enough to transmit infection directly. In the study, researchers used GPS collars to track the movements of badgers and cattle across 20 farms in Cornwall. They didn’t find a single incidence of badgers and cattle coming face to face and said that, if anything, badgers tended to avoid larger animals, preferring to keep 50m between themselves and cows.

They said that any bovine TB transmission between the species is likely to come from their shared environment – possibly from infected urine or faeces in pastures, possibly from other cattle as well as badgers – rather than direct contact. Imperial College London researchers said their discovery means advice to farmers on controlling bTB may require a rethink and ‘paves the way for novel approaches to managing this controversial disease’.

BTB HARD TO CONTROL 

The findings could shed light on just why bTB is so hard to control, even when badgers and cattle are being culled, because the bacteria that cause the disease can persist in the environment for months.

Earlier research from the government’s Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA, now APHA) which used surveillance cameras on 75 farms to look at possible ways of badger-proofing farms captured footage of badgers attempting to access cattle feed in sheds and fields. Defra said its bTB control strategy still includes wildlife-proofing high risk farms.

Discussing the recent findings, Professor Rosie Woodroffe, a senior ZSL researcher and a visiting professor at the School of Public Health at Imperial, who has spoken out against the government’s badger culling policy, said: “It has been known for a long time that badgers can transmit TB to cattle – but without knowing how they do it, it is hard to offer farmers advice on the most promising ways to protect their herds.

“Our study provides the strongest evidence yet that transmission is happening through the environment, helping to explain why controlling TB is so difficult. This work marks the first step towards identifying more effective ways to reduce transmission between badgers and cattle, and also potentially better ways to manage cattle-to-cattle transmission as well.”

It has long been known that badgers can pass bovine TB on to cattle, but an increasing body of research has shown that patterns of infection are very complex – that cattle-to-cattle transmission is the most common source of bTB on farms and that cattle can pass the disease to badgers – and this means badgers’ role in transmitting the disease, which can also affect a host of other wild and domestic species, is unclear.

‘NO CERTAINTY’ 

Speaking to the BBC, Prof Woodroffe said: “There are loads and loads of things that farmers are being advised to do and there is no certainty that any of them will actually work and because of this, hardly any farmers implement any of these sorts of measures. If we can focus on the things most likely to work on that massive array of things farmers are being advised to do, more people will do them.”

The researchers, whose work was funded by Defra, are now scanning fields to see where TB bacteria are present.

Defra is expected to announce that its highly controversial cull will be expanded into new areas of the South-West later this summer.

A COMPLEX DISEASE 

A NFU Cymru spokesperson said: “Bovine TB is a complex disease that must be tackled in the round, including addressing wildlife disease reservoirs, if we are to stand any chance of eradicating the disease. The role played by badgers in the spread of bovine TB is well known and widely accepted. Badgers are recognised as a significant wildlife reservoir of the disease in areas where it is endemic. Research has shown that badgers could contribute to up to 50% of cattle herd TB breakdowns in areas where the disease is rife.

“NFU Cymru has always said that we must use all options available if we are to stand a chance of controlling and eradicating this devastating disease. Cattle movement controls, cattle testing and on-farm biosecurity all have a vital role to play in a TB eradication plan, but experience from across the globe and indeed from our neighbours across the border in England and across the Irish Sea, have shown that a genuine TB eradication plan must also include a strategy for dealing with the disease reservoir in wildlife, in areas where it is endemic.

“From its inception, NFU Cymru has consistently raised concerns about the cost and effectiveness of the Welsh Government’s badger vaccination policy in the Intensive Action Area (IAA) in North Pembrokeshire. Four years in to what was supposed to be a five year programme, a global shortage of the BCG vaccination has led to its premature curtailment. A bovine TB wildlife strategy predicated solely on the vaccination of badgers is not a viable or sustainable policy option.

“Farmers in the IAA and across the whole of Wales are playing their part in bearing down on the disease t h r o u g h s t r i n g e n t cattle control measures, but the reservoir of infection that exists in wildlife has not been confronted. If the Welsh Government is genuine about eradicating Bovine TB in Wales then it has to implement a policy of targeted culling of badgers in areas where the disease is endemic that will actively remove the disease from the badger population in these areas.”

NO NEW EVIDENCE 

A Welsh Government spokesperson told The Herald: “We are fully aware of this interesting work by Professor Rosie Woodroffe, which we have discussed with her in some detail.

“We remain committed to a science-led approach to the eradication of bovine TB. Our current programme includes the testing of cattle, strict biosecurity measures and movement control. This is aimed at tackling all sources of infection. The latest statistics show the number of new TB incidents in the 12 months to April 2016 reduced by 17%.

“We will continue to study all the available evidence relating to the transmission and prevention of bovine TB and are considering how Professor Woodroffe’s observations might feed into continued development of our TB programme. The Cabinet Secretary will make a statement on the Welsh Government’s refreshed TB eradication programme in the autumn.”

FUW Senior Policy Officer Dr Hazel Wright told us: “The latest study by Professor Woodroffe and colleagues provides no new evidence on the issue of bovine TB transmission. The FUW has long recognised that infected badgers can contaminate both pasture and housing via the excretion of M. bovis bacilli in urine, faeces, sputum and exudate from open abscesses.

“Farmers continue to adhere to strict cattle testing, movement and biosecurity measures in an attempt to reduce the level of transmission from badgers to cattle. However, in the absence of any badger control mechanisms, such cattle measures will only have a limited effect on disease eradication whilst having a very significant emotional and financial impact on farm businesses.”

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Farming

Cattle prices exceed averages – and expectations

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BEEF cattle prices in England and Wales have hit the milestone of £4 per kilo, making this average the highest on record in a number of years.

The average deadweight price for steers for the week ending 24 April was 401.4p per kg which is 83p higher than this time last year and 67p above the five-year average.

Market prices at present are being influenced by a number of unique factors, including strong UK domestic retail demand, a lack of supply due to stockpiling in late-2020 ahead of the Brexit deadline, and changes in trade patterns caused by both Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

Whilst the impact of these factors on demand for beef in 2021 is unpredictable, newly released data from the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) suggests that no radical shift is likely in the supply of animals over the coming months.

During 2020, total calf registrations in GB were up marginally (0.5%) on 2019. In Wales, the figures show an increase of 1.4% in beef calf registrations, whilst dairy calf numbers increased by 3.2% on the year. For 2021 so far, beef calf registrations are currently trending 1.1% below last year.

Glesni Phillips is a Data Analyst at Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC). She said: “As we approach the peak calving period for spring calving herds in Wales, it is expected that BCMS monthly registration figures will increase over the coming months.

“However, the suckler cow herd in the UK has been retracting in recent years and currently, it shows no signs of re-building quickly. Prime heifer slaughterings during 2020 and the first quarter of this year, for instance, are higher than recent historic levels.

“These figures would suggest that supply onto the domestic UK market will likely remain tight for some time. Domestic retail figures for beef are strong, and with barbeque season coming up we should continue to see good demand  for good quality, locally produced beef.”

A more detailed analysis of the BCMS calf registrations data is available in HCC’s latest Market Bulletin on the HCC website.

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Farming

NVZ rules driving family farms out of business

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GLAMORGAN beef and sheep farmers Richard Walker and his partner Rachel Edwards run Flaxland Farm – a 120-acre beef and sheep holding just outside of Barry, Glamorgan. The couple say they will have to give up keeping cattle if current Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations are not adjusted to incorporate recommendations made by industry stakeholder groups.

Richard and Rachel keep 35 breeding cows and 130 breeding ewes and are at the end of their tether.

“We’ve had a session with Farming Connect to see what we need to be doing, and it didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, apart from that we have enough ground to cope with how much slurry we produce. So we wouldn’t have to export. But we would have to cover one of the existing yards, which is an awkward shape, plus cover where we scrape slurry to, and also put in a slurry store. Which we don’t have at the moment,” said Rachel Edwards. 

“Judging on what the shed we had to put up recently has cost us, I don’t think we’ll have any change out of £50 thousand if we try to meet the requirements of the new regulations.  35 cows don’t bring in that sort of money. Where do you get that money from? And you still need to pay it back at the end if it’s borrowed. We’re looking at the kids probably still paying off what we’d spend. It would be far more stressful having to pay all that money back than getting rid of the cows. 

“These regulations are going to have a huge impact on our farm business. If nothing is done to amend or annul what we are facing now, I’ll have no choice but to get rid of the cattle. Trying to comply with these regulations is just going to be too expensive for us,” said Richard Walker.

Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths announced the plans in a written statement in November last year, after which it became apparent that the majority of the plans had simply ‘been cut-and-pasted’ from the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) rules currently affecting just 2.4% of Wales.

While the Welsh Government announced in January that £11.5 funding would be made available to help farmers comply with the new rules – an allocation it had already announced previously in September 2020 – this represents just 3% of the £360 million the Welsh Government’s own impact assessment estimates the costs could be for Welsh farmers.

“There’s clearly nowhere near enough money to go around, and the total estimated bill is more than Wales’ annual farming budget.

“The margins are tight on lowland sucklers as it is. We’re looking at spending tens of thousands of pounds to comply. Is it really worth it?” adds Richard.

At Flaxland farm the muck gets spread on around 30 acres of fields in September when the fields are clear and it is left for a couple of months to rot down and go into the ground before being used as grazing for the new season lambs. 

“It saves us using artificial fertiliser. It’s organic fertilizer versus the artificial stuff which is £300 a tonne. We spread the slurry over winter, it helps the grass grow and we can turn the lambs and sheep out early. The spring lambs have fresh good grass and it hasn’t cost us a fortune in bagged fertiliser. 

“I look at what it does to my ground – new season lambs have lush green grass, a couple of inches tall and they rocket on it. We can produce 12 week old lambs ready for slaughter on grass and milk with no concentrate. Without it, the grass wouldn’t be as beneficial to the new season lambs as it is now. There would be a shortage of grass around February and March. The way we do things here works in rhythm with all the livestock and the environment. We also deal with the carbon footprint of our produce by selling our lambs locally to I.G. Nicholas butchers in Cowbridge, which means they have very few miles to travel from farm to plate,” said Richard.  

Being the third generation to farm the land, Richard says the farming system hasn’t changed much over the years and pollution here has never been an issue.

“I have had the cows all my life, my grandfather used to milk and they gave up milking in the 60s, and then we have had suckler cows ever since. The way we keep them hasn’t changed, back then it was open yards and they were fed on a concrete pad and whatever was left was scraped up and went out. It has never been an issue and we’ve never had a pollution incident here. The river near us has been tested many times and never comes back with any problems.

“I, like so many other farmers, take our responsibility to look after the environment, including our waters, very seriously. We have always been clear that one pollution incident is one too many and those who are guilty of polluting our rivers and watercourse should be held to account. Not many will argue with that. But to introduce these regulations across the whole of Wales, which goes against the recommendations the Welsh Government has received from their own task and finish group, beggars belief and will see many small and medium sized family farms go out of the cattle business,” he said.

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Farming

Small steps to improving pig fertility

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SIMPLE changes to pig management can result in significant improvements in fertility on units struggling with reproduction.

Factors influencing pig fertility are many and varied and can be due to infectious or non-infectious causes, says pig vet Dr Alex Thomsett, of The George Veterinary Group.

Non-infectious causes are often those that producers have more influences over and, in many cases, usually mean very simple changes, Dr Thomsett told farmers participating in a recent FarmingConnect webinar.

“A few small tweaks to management or the approach to reproduction on-farm can easily change a fairly difficult situation into a much better picture without going through a whole heap of blood sampling,’’ she said.

Among these is temperature stress; although this is more commonly associated with heat, cold can be a factor too.

Sows can find it difficult to adapt to changes in temperature and it can lead to more returns of service, poor cycling and higher numbers of abortions.

In outdoor herds, ensure pigs have mud wallows to dissipate heat and, to protect from direct sunlight, create shaded areas.

“This can be done very simply, with a few poles and a length of gale break or similar material,’’ Dr Thomsett advised.

Changes in day length can result in seasonal infertility in the autumn.

As this affects gilts, in particular, Dr Thomsett recommends selecting gilts that are early to go through puberty rather than those that are delayed.

Pigs need a minimum of 16 hours of daylight so ensure light exposure in housing is good – even cleaning whitewashed walls or lightbulbs can make a difference by better reflecting light at sow level on the back of the eye.

Light is more difficult to control in outdoor herds because this system is beholden to the time of the year and, for this reason, Dr Thomsett stressed that it was vital to get all the other issues around fertility working well, including nutrition.

Gilts need the right nutrition balance to prepare them to come into first service and to support them through the first service.

“Gilts and young females are still growing through their first pregnancy and it can often be forgotten that when a pig is lactating, her body is preparing for the next cycle’’, said Dr Thomsett.

In herds with longer lactation periods, Dr Thomsett suggests providing piglets with supplementary feeding to support the sow.

Mycotoxicosis is another consideration and can significantly interfere with herd fertility but Dr Thomsett said this is an unlikely cause if the farm has good quality sources of grain and straw.

Adding binders to feed is the best form of defence because these absorb harmful mycotoxins.

Vaccinations are an important tool for preventing infectious causes of infertility.

Ensure that the vaccination record of any bought-in stock is up to date and quarantine these animals, to ensure they are fit and healthy before entering the herd.

Carrying out a herd health check to establish health status and therefore which vaccinations are needed is greatly beneficial, said Dr Thomsett.

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