Highly advance and accurate technology is being trialled as part of an SRUC project, after livestock scientists were awarded £337,000 of funding to undertake the work from the Biological Sciences Research Council.
It is hoped that sample results could give farmers information to make predictions on the bTB status of animals much earlier than has been previously possible, as well as potentially feeding into national genetic evaluations for bTB host resistance.
Professor Mike Coffey is leading the project and is confident that this technology could be used as another weapon in the fight against bTB, which is estimated to cost the UK dairy industry around £175 million each year.
Increasingly huge data sets and advances in computer technology means this ‘deep learning’ approach can now be adopted to make best use of the information available.
Professor Coffey says: “Samples are provided to us by NMR daily and the technology works using the same MIR technology used to predict fat and protein levels in milk samples.
“Given that TB is a notifiable disease, research has to be done on ‘old’ data. Essentially on milk samples from herds with a known TB status which would otherwise have be thrown away.
“Instead, this can then be used to detect other information from the milk, in this case the difference between TB affected and non-TB affected milk.
“By analysing the difference in samples from those that are known to be TB affected and those which are clear, scientists have been able to build up a model of what this looks like.
“Now created, the model can be applied to the individual milk samples coming in each day so that a prediction on the TB status of individual animals can be made in herds that are in breakdown.
“These analyses are then compared to the known TB status of that animal to determine the level of accuracy achieved with the predictions.”
Professor Coffey explains that the project is now at the point of working out how accurate these predictions are.
Although this is not expected to be 100 per cent accurate all of the time, he says, it needs to be accurate enough to ensure that predictions are not missing or falsely identifying cows to be bTB positive which is deemed unacceptable.
“It is important to remember that is not the ‘silver bullet’ in terms of a test which is 100 per cent able to identify cows which are TB positive.
“It is giving us an additional piece of information we can gather from routine milk recording, which could give farmers an opportunity to take remedial action long before the normal TB testing regime comes in.
“With the knowledge that a cow may have been exposed to the infection, animals can be isolated away from the rest of the herd.
“Working with the existing tools out there to control TB, like the culling programme, can all contribute to lowering the background levels of the disease.
“The idea being that all these control measures can actually eliminate the disease rather than just supressing it.”
This kind of data could also feed into national data on TB to produce breeding values for TB resistance, something which Professor Coffey says all farmers could benefit from.
“Feeding this information into a national data set would see all farmers getting a share of the benefit in terms of being able to select bulls and cows which have improved resistance to TB.
“There is a common good to be had from eliminating this disease which affects so many farmers.
“Even those who do not necessarily have the disease on their farm are affected by more limited opportunities to sell cattle as well as the price implications it has on animals bought and sold.”
Professor Coffey says he is confident this project could reach national roll out once the study has been completed in two years’ time.
“Aside from the elating difference it would make to UK dairy businesses, TB eradication also has the potential to change the public perception of dairy farming in the UK.
“We are confident this technology has a place alongside tools already deployed to eliminate the disease.”