Britain’s dairy industry is doomed unless it takes more effective stepsto control the spread of endemic diseases like tuberculosis and bovinevirus diarrhoea, according to a leading cattle vet.

Richard SibleyAt a conference on infectious disease at the Royal Veterinary College (September 18), Devon practitioner Dick Sibley warned that the management and economic trends in the UK dairy industry are increasing the risk of disease transmission – and its potential impact once it does enter a herd.

Figures he obtained from the British Cattle Movements Service show that about four million cattle, or half the total UK cattle herd, are moved from one premises to another each year.

Those being sent for slaughter were unlikely to spread infections but moving cattle of unknown disease status to new premises greatly increased the risk of bringing in new diseases.

Mr Sibley said: “If you set out to design a system that guarantees that we will continue to have problems with endemic disease then I could not think of a better one than this.”

Cattle numbers are increasing in those areas like Devon and Cheshire which already have among the highest population densities for dairy animals in the world – and are also the main hot spots in the current bovine TB epidemic. Farmers feel compelled to buy in heifers from as far afield as Germany and Holland to replace animals culled as TB reactors, as they will lose bonus payments from customers who demand that they maintain constant levels of production.

Richard Sibley

Several other factors also increase the likely impact of disease in a previously healthy herd – the concentration of cattle numbers into fewer but larger units, the growing emphasis on cattle kept indoors all year round and breeding for high yielding animals that are more vulnerable to disease. Meanwhile, a shortage of skilled manpower means that half the available stockmen are shared between farms and can therefore be responsible for bringing in disease.

But Mr Sibley claimed farmers have little or no control over some of the more important risk factors – particularly movements of badgers and the presence of diseased herds on neighbouring premises.

“So these farmers with big herds in high density areas and neighbours that have the disease are done for unless we can do something serious to manage the risks,” he said.

Mr Sibley said dairy farmers can work with their veterinary advisers to reduce risk using the four main pillars of disease control – improved biosecurity, better surveillance, appropriate vaccination and containment of disease transmission within the herd. But diseases also had to be tackled on a national level and if DEFRA is unwilling to take on the task, he proposed the creation of an independent livestock disease agency with sufficient staff and resources to carry out its remit.

The costs of running such a body should be shared among all those stakeholders with an interest in preserving an economically viable dairy industry, including, for example the cereal producers who provide the dairy industry with much of its food materials, he suggested.

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