Britain’s livestock trade is reliant on stock moving round the country and industry chiefs say a balance has to be struck between minimising disease risk and maintaining a competitive marketplace.
Richard Findlay, North York Moors mixed farmer, said it was important ‘not to interfere with trade’ but to do everything in the industry’s power to make cattle as safe as possible.
“We did have a problem before post-movement testing came in, where cattle were coming from the high risk area [HRA] to the low risk area [LRA], spending a week on a farm under the six-day standstill and then being sold as being from the LRA,” he said.
“Farmers in our region were buying those cattle thinking they were from the LRA, but if they had known they were from Devon or Somerset they would not have touched them with a bargepole. It was misleading and we had a lot of complaints from those in our TB-free area.
“This was stopped with the 60-day post movement test.”
Mr Findlay said his region supported post-movement testing, with farmers bearing the cost of the test, about £10-£15 per animal, as it could prevent a TB breakdown costing tens of thousands of pounds.
Between April 1, 2016 and August 28, 2017, 14 reactors were disclosed in post-movement tests on 11 holdings.
“Vets and farmers on my patch in the North East will say we should build a wall and stop risky cattle coming here, but we cannot stop them as we have finishers turning over more than 100 cattle a week who need them,” said Mr Findlay.
“All the TB in the LRA turns up on a wagon and a lot of it is the failure of the accuracy of the test but it is difficult to defend moving TB round the country by cattle movements.
“We have to clean up our act, on the cattle movement side as well as with the badgers.
“If we say no to these cattle, some of them will come anyway and it will not be through the proper channels.
“My view is we cannot stop the cattle and we do not want to stop them. The finishers need them so we need to make them safer, and this is where we are with Assured Finishing Units [AFUs].”
Chris Dodds, executive secretary of the Livestock Auctioneers’ Association (LAA), agreed it was crucial to keep the need for a viable cattle industry at the heart of any TB eradication policy.
It was also crucial not to castigate those in hotspot areas.
“Those big feeding guys are doing a tremendous job and are vital to the sustainability of our industry which needs this supply of cattle,” said Mr Dodds.
“What we cannot have is a situation where cattle in one part of the country are worth one price and in another part of the country are worth another.
“We have to remember about half the farms in the HRA have not had TB for at least 10 years. At present we are massively tarnishing those guys. Is that fair?"
Mr Dodds said orange markets, which provided farmers with a trading option for clear tested animals from TB restricted herds, had helped create a level marketplace.
“Before orange markets, some farmers were getting 50-60 per cent of their livestock value and they are now getting as much as other cattle are making at green markets,” he said.
“We need to make sure those marketplaces are maintained to allow the feeding people to buy cattle at competitive prices, allowing them to stay in business and sell at competitive deadweight prices.”
Auction marts run dedicated ‘red’ sales but animals sold there must go straight to the abattoir.
“The only issue is when supply is above demand and those cattle cannot go home, they have to go for slaughter, which puts those red markets in a weaker position,” he added.
Compensation for affected herds has long been a bone of contention for those with farms hit by the disease, with the financial strain making some businesses untenable.
Defra said its policy for determining compensation was ‘clear and well established’ but many farmers believe it is not proportionate and does not take into account the value of the animal and its future earning potential, especially in regard to pedigree stock.
In the last few weeks Warwickshire farmer Robert Leach, Warmington Beef Shorthorns, was forced to send a pedigree bull he bought at the Great Yorkshire Show to slaughter after it tested positive.
The bull was from a high health status herd which has been TB-free for 25 years. The rest of Mr Leach’s herd went clear and he has enjoyed a 20-year TB-free record.
“I paid £8,000 for the bull and was offered £2,400 under the compensation scheme,” said Mr Leach.
“It is an unfair system. I think pedigree cattle should be different and, in any case, farmers should be allowed to have an independent valuation as they have in Wales.”
In 2016, the Welsh Government decided against switching to a tabular valuation system similar to the one used in England, but announced new stricter measures to penalise farmers, reducing compensation by up to 95 per cent for ‘risky practices which can contribute to the spread of TB’.
Cheshire dairy farmer Phil Latham, whose herd went down with TB five years ago, said tweaking the compensation regime could help stop so-called ‘risky trading’.
He said: “Surely we should have a system where for every risk you go up, the equivalent percentage comes down. For example, if you are in a low risk area and you buy cattle from a high risk area you do not get any compensation, because you should not do that.
“People are doing it selfishly because these are cheap, disadvantaged cattle.
“You have people in Wales buying in high risk animals from Cheshire on the cheap because they are high risk, taking them into Wales and getting individual animal valuation and trading up in value if they go down with the disease.
"It is not an incentive to manage disease, it is a perverse incentive to keep the disease. It becomes an earner and this is ridiculous.
“You are not saying people cannot trade, but if there is a market disadvantage for trading riskily then people will become risk averse.”
Mr Latham pointed to New Zealand’s system, where herds were given a 1-10 rating on the number of years they had been clear of TB. Farmers are then required to declare this when trading.
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