Bovine TB - a cattle farmer's perspective Print this pagePrint this page

Despite having a beef herd slap bang in the middle of a major bTB hotspot the author of this case study has always been clear regarding bovine TB, unlike most of his neighbours. Cattle farmer, Tim Green, can't say why this is but he tells us he does have a herd of real mongrels, not particularly high yielding, yet robust.They graze on a wide range of forage plants in the summer and their winter feed is proper old-fashioned hay (wild flowers, weeds and all). They have numerous badger setts amongst the pasture but they do make sure the badgers get supplementary feed when times are tough and mineral licks to keep their immune systems firing on all cylinders. What is bovine TB? Why are we set to cull huge numbers of badgers to deal with it? Here he attempts to answer some of these questions..

Well, if you're reading this piece hoping to glean some new facts or incisive reasoning to back up your already firmly held belief that culling badgers or not culling badgers is the right or wrong thing to do then I'm afraid you will be disappointed. In fact, the following summation of the problem as I see it will probably make you angry.

Badgers are largely irrelevant. The real problems are our mistaken belief that disease eradication is desirable, our hubris in thinking we can achieve said eradication, and mankind's continuing naïvety in expecting nature to abide by the arbitrary and spurious rules of economics that we hold so dear.

Animals and disease

All animals, including ourselves, deal with disease in one of two ways; by either dying or by getting better. If you get better, it means your immune system has done its job. If you don't get noticeably ill in the first place it means your immune system has done its job and if you die then your immune system wasn't much good in the first place. You may recognise this as natural selection, an ongoing process by which continued exposure to diseases and pathogens creates a population largely capable of surviving such things. This is sometimes referred to as "survival of the fittest".

In contrast, the current official "test and cull" policy to deal with bovine TB in the UK has been most aptly described as "survival of the shittest". This is the process by which we slaughter any cow that shows signs of mounting an immune response to the TB pathogen, thus steadily removing those animals from the population that had the best chance of surviving infection.

If that policy sounds a little insane to you then you probably aren't a politician. As far as I can tell, the only context in which such madness appears to make sense is in the paradoxical world of international trade. As a member of the EU we are "obliged" to try and eradicate bovine TB whether or not it's possible or even makes sense. Oh, and we're not allowed to use vaccines either. If money is your thing then it's worth noting that we are spending £100 million each year trying to protect an export market (live cattle) worth about £3.3 million.

For me, the whole bovine tb issue is so far beyond rational, logical discussion that it's futile to even try and discuss it rationally. Farmers are crying out to kill the badgers because they are trapped by an inherently flawed policy and are clutching at straws. The government is sinking in a quagmire of vested interests, lobby groups, media outrage, EU bureaucracy and public opinion. Those who oppose the cull are emotionally tied to the badgers' fate because they are (quite rightly) sick and tired of the seemingly unstoppable erosion of our natural environment.

Bovine TB - do we need a 'solution'?

So what's the solution? Well, if there is one it's a hell of a long way from where we are now. The independent group www.rethinkbtb.org have the best summary of the current situation I have seen and a very sensible suggested way forward – I highly recommend you read their discussion paper. The main thing they point out is that bovine TB isn't really much of a problem in the first place and the "devastating effect" it is having on farmers is in reality not from the disease but from the misguided attempted control policy.

The "test and cull" program has been going on now for 60 years and has only succeeded in costing a lot of money and stressing out farmers. Even total extinction of the badger wouldn't get rid of bTB as it is a very gregarious bacillus and is happy in pretty much any mammal. If the EU were to have a change of heart (or collapse completely which is looking distinctly possible at the moment) then we would at least be allowed to vaccinate cattle which would certainly have a much more pronounced effect. However, we should always bear in mind Sevareid's Law: "The chief cause of problems is solutions."

As farmer Joel Salatin says "pests and diseases are nature's way of telling us we are doing something wrong". You could argue that without diseases like bTB we would be free to carry on taking farming down its current ultimately doomed path. We could continue reducing the cattle gene pool to a puddle in the pursuit of ever more productive and freakish animals. Breeds like the Belgian Blue may produce a lot of rump steaks but that muscle mass has to have come at a price – most probably to its internal organs and immune system. It's no surprise that the new improved Holstein, the darling of industrial milk production, is particularly susceptible to TB infection. They have been bred to produce so much milk that they are effectively forced to digest their own bodies to keep up with their udders. Does that sound like a sensible survival trait to you?

Intensive farming in a world without Bovine TB

Without bTB we could also further increase our stocking densities, increase herd sizes, use lower quality forage and just push the animals a little harder all round. What appears to make sense economically is ecological suicide. If there is one thing that nature will not tolerate it is "economies of scale". Even in the absence of TB, a tightly packed herd of 2000 over-developed, under-the-weather cattle with little genetic variation between them are some other pathogen's dream home.

On our particular farm we are by no means doing everything right but, despite having a beef herd slap bang in the middle of a major bTB hotspot we are, unlike most of our neighbours, so far in the clear. I can't say why this is but we do have a herd of real mongrels, not particularly high yielding yet robust. They graze on a wide range of forage plants in the summer and their winter feed is proper old-fashioned hay (wild flowers, weeds and all). We have numerous badger setts amongst the pasture but we do make sure the badgers get supplementary feed when times are tough and mineral licks to keep their immune systems firing on all cylinders. Or we may just be lucky so far.

Looking beyond bTB there is a near infinite world of Foot and Mouth Disease, BSE, CBP, PPR, anthrax, trypanosomosis, brucellosis, avian influenza, swine fever, wheat rust, ergot, BYDV, potato blight, rice blast, rice ragged stunt, corn smut, maize mosaic virus, wilt, take-all, weevils, borers, warble flies, varroa mites, foul-brood, Newcastle disease, lungworm, liver fluke, fowl pox, aspergillosis......and on and on and on. The war on agricultural pests and diseases is an exercise in futility. So rather than trying to eradicate them I suggest we continue studying and observing and letting them tell us where we're going wrong. And, as things stand, that list is even longer.


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