Suckler beef farmer Paul Brereton is keen to keep disease out of his herd, so has embarked on an wide-ranging programme to improve farm biosecurity. Melanie Jenkins reports.
The beef unit run by Paul Brereton and his son Philip at Knighton, near Market Drayton in Shropshire, falls within the bovine TB high risk area. As well as a commercial suckler herd, the pair have pedigree Limousin and Blonde cattle totalling 46 cattle on 22 hectares (54 acres), alongside a horse haylage business.
The Breretons initially purchased the land in 2006, taking it out of cereal production and putting it into permanent grass when they switched to Limousins in 2010. The Blonde cattle followed shortly after in 2012.
Despite buying from a breeder who had never had a case of TB and ran a closed herd, a reactor was found later that year in the family’s annual TB test. Several more reactors emerged in subsequent tests before they managed to get clear, and they vowed to do everything they could to avoid going through the same experience again.
The cost of TB is ‘phenomenal’ between testing and labour, Paul explains.
“It soon mounts up if you factor in £40/hour/person. These breakdowns were the push for us to make some permanent changes.”
The Breretons believed badgers were bringing the disease on to the farm. With so much surrounding land down to maize, Paul believes that if they had carried on without taking measures to stop badgers getting in, they would be like any other farm in the area – under constant restriction.
“So we made the decision to take a slice of single farm payment to put up some proper fencing, doing some ourselves and some in conjunction with contractor,” he says.
“We kept doing it a bit at a time until we had virtually all the grazing ground ring fenced with high tensile wire, with two strands of barbed wire right at the bottom and another strand buried underground. Badgers do not like creosote so we also creosoted all the posts. This should help them last 25 years plus as well.”
Where there were hedge boundaries on the farm, Paul let them grow up and had professional hedgelaying done at the bottom, cutting out the dead wood then replanting and re-laying to stop badgers passing underneath.
“It has made a huge difference,” he says. “A disused railway line right next to us is full of foxes and other wildlife, but now we do not see any of those animals coming through our land to the old line, whereas they used to pass through all the time.”
The pair did not stop there. Next, they tackled the water troughs, lowering the ball valves and angled them so badgers would find it harder to drink from the edge.
Feed troughs inside were also angled and creep feeders had folded steel wrapped around them to stop badgers getting a grip to climb them.
All feed and mineral licks were raised off the ground by about 1.2 metres and in the buildings, doorways were altered to eliminate gaps at the bottom.
“These might be minor things, but they become major if you do not address them,” says Paul. “They cost virtually nothing to do and they all help.
“Having already done a lot of work to keep the disease out we decided to go to a discussion on TB hosted by our local practice, Tern Vets, to keep up to speed. We realised that TB accreditation would give us a good biosecurity template to work from to reduce risk. Its rules are reviewed and updated each year so you know you are working to the latest information.”
So in 2016 the pair decided to join a cattle health scheme so they could participate in the newly-launched CHeCS TB herd accreditation.
They signed up for accreditation through Premium Cattle Health Scheme (PCHS) and they now have an annual inspection from their farm vet, Rose Willis, to keep their accreditation, and gain a point for each year they remain TB-free. PCHS links to the APHA database to reconcile the accreditation score with the latest TB test results.
“Our last breakdown was in 2013 so we have now got a TB herd accreditation score of seven,” says Paul.
“This tells any buyers of our cattle that despite farming in a high-risk area for TB, we are a low risk farm. It stops us being penalised for where we live.
“We were already doing most of what was required for accreditation – improving fencing, raising water troughs and stopping badger contact with cattle, feed and water. We had also changed manure management and the way we bought in new stock and quarantined them,” he adds.
“Alongside the changes we were making came some new opportunities – for example switching to a completely closed herd opened up new opportunities with more diverse bloodlines through breeding with AI.”
Paul and Philip felt they benefited so much from the health scheme approach that they started a BVD elimination programme through PCHS three years ago.
“We combined the BVD testing with our annual TB test to make it simpler, and went BVD free this year,” says Paul.
“We have noticed a difference here too. We sell some commercial calves as forward stores but we take many calves through to finishing.
“Some are slaughtered privately and sold through a local butcher, with the others going to the local abattoir’s wholesale and retail meat business.
“Getting rid of BVD has helped improve cattle growth rates and the accreditation for both BVD and TB helps with pedigree sales too,” adds Paul.
“We also sell some Blonde/Limousin cross bulls to dairy farmers and they make great commercial bulls with excellent growth rates and little fat.”
Shropshire and Staffordshire are the first two counties in England’s high risk area to be moved to six-monthly TB testing under recent changes to Defra’s approach. All high risk areas will follow suit over coming months and years.
However, Paul and Philip are staying on annual testing because they participate in the TB herd accreditation scheme, and also because they have been TB-free for over six years.
Infectious diseases are a drain on any herd, but simple biosecurity steps can dramatically reduce the risk of transmission.
Whether producers are looking to control Johne’s, BVD or TB, many of the UK’s health assurance scheme protocols rest on biosecure principles. This means farmers who adopt them are not only reducing the risk of one disease, but all infectious diseases.
According to Sarah Tomlinson, of Westpoint Farm Vets, the first step is straightforward.
She says: “Minimise contact with infectious animals. That may be other cattle, badgers or deer and involves good fencing and quarantine procedures, as well as basic measures like cleaning water troughs regularly and keeping feed away from wildlife.”
She adds it is also important to identify and remove diseased cattle from the herd, and avoid cross-contamination through muck spreading, for example.