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Herd size and feeding practice linked to bovine TB risk, study finds

Researchers from Exeter University said their study is the first to link a range of landscape-scale habitat features and farming practices with bovine TB risk.
The study linked herd size and feeding practice to TB risk
The study linked herd size and feeding practice to TB risk

Large cattle herds are significantly more likely to suffer bovine TB outbreaks than smaller herds, a new study has concluded.

 

Researchers from the University of Exeter said their findings showed ’intensive farming practices’ increased the likelihood of cattle contracting bovine TB.

 

They also liked bTB risk to farming practices like the amount of maize grown, the use of silage and even landscape features like hedgerows.

 

The study, funded by BBSRC and published online here in the Royal Society journal Biological Letters on Wednesday, analysed data from 503 farms which had suffered a TB breakdown alongside 808 control farms in areas of high TB risk.

 

Key findings included:

 

  • Farms with herds of 150 cattle or more were 50 per cent more likely to suffer a bTB outbreak than those with herds of 50 or fewer.
  • Patterns of crop production and feeding were also important, with the risks increasing with practices linked with what the researchers described as higher productivity systems.
  • For every 10 hectares of maize – a favourite food of the badgers – bTB risk increased by 20 per cent.
  • The feeding of silage was linked with a doubling of the risk in both dairy and beef systems.
  • Landscape features such as deciduous woodland, marshes and hedgerows were also important. For example, on farms with 50km of field boundaries, each extra 1km of hedgerow was linked with a 37 per cent reduction in risk. This is likely to be because there is less contamination of pasture by badger faeces and urine in hedgerow-rich areas.
  • Marshland was associated with increased risk, possibly as a secondary effect of infection with liver fluke – a disease linked with wet environments and which interferes with the diagnosis of bTB in cattle.

 

Dr Fiona Mathews, Associate Professor in Mammalian Biology, who led the study, said: “TB is absolutely devastating for farming, and it’s essential that workable solutions are found.

Crippling consequences

"In the worst hit areas, farms are frequently affected over and over again with crippling consequences.

 

"If lower intensity production means better animal health, it offers a sustainable long-term strategy in high risk areas.”

 

The researchers said the last few decades had seen radical changes in farming practices, with half of British dairy farmers have gone out of business since 2002.

 

Those that remain have larger herds and greater productivity: average herd size increased from 75 animals in 1996 to 133 in 2014 (a rise of 77per cent). Meanwhile average annual milk yield has increased from 5,775 litres per cow in 1995 to 7,535l per cow in 2013 (a rise of 27 per cent).

 

Dr Mathews said: “This is the first large-scale study to link a range of landscape-scale habitat features and farming practices with bTB.

 

"All of the effects we have found are additive, so changing several linked aspects of the farming system could potentially make a big difference.

 

"Farmers are already aware that biosecurity in the farmyard can help reduce the risk of bTB in cattle.

 

"We have now shown that wider environmental management is also important. By finding out more about these links, we hope that we can help eradicate this terrible disease.”

 


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Reaction

A Defra spokesperson said large herd size was a 'well-known risk factor as the risk of TB slowly increases as herds get bigger' but stressed this does not mean larger herds are necessarily farmed more intensively.
She said: “Biosecurity is a key element of the Government’s 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine TB from England. This also includes strict surveillance, tight controls on cattle movements, vaccinating badgers where it is effective and culling where the disease is rife.
“We encourage livestock keepers to take all necessary precautions to protect their herds from bovine TB.”
The Soil Association said the research had potential to radically shift the bitter debate about the causes, and solutions, to bTB.
Helen Browning, the association's chief executive said: “For thirty years or more successive governments and farming leaders have avoided any discussion about how changing farming systems, and particularly more intensive and ever larger herds, may be increasing the incidence of bovine TB.
"This ground-breaking research should change the debate about this devastating disease, and put how we farm and care for farm animals firmly at the centre of discussions.”
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