Bill Mellor has experienced the impact of animal disease at first hand. After suffering the disastrous consequences of buying in a BVD persistently infected (PI) animal, Mr Mellor has placed herd health at the top of his priority list.
He says: “In 2000, we bought-in a few sucklers to expand the herd and this is when we caused the problem. We had an abortion storm; three cows lost calves and it floored the business. I know what damage a PI can do in a naive herd.”
This was the second time a disease outbreak had caused Mr Mellor to change track, the first time was BSE, even though he never had a case on the farm near Stockport, Greater Manchester.
“Up until the BSE crisis, we had fattened up to 500 cattle each year inside at this farm. We were an intensive unit, feeding sweet waste from the Swizzels and Trebor Bassett factories and bread waste from Manchester.
“I used to be in markets three and four times a week buying and selling. BSE meant our market was taken away from us, and it made me realise how vulnerable we were.”
In response to this, Mr Mellor began investigating local markets for his beef and lamb and began selling through a butcher in nearby Bramall.
“I have got chimney pots all around me and this gives me an advantage,” Mr Mellor says.
Located just 10 minutes from the centre of Stockport and less than half an hour from Manchester city centre meant selling to butchers and later direct to his own customer base was a realistic option.
He now sells more than half his lambs via a box scheme and almost all the cattle not sold as breeding stock go to the local slaughter house less than five miles away. By selling a range of mixed cuts in boxes of 10kg and 20kg he eliminates waste and still retains a loyal customer base.
“I aim to produce the highest quality product. The carcase is hung for a minimum of three weeks and we ensure there is not too much or too little fat. My customers remark on how much better it tastes compared to supermarket meat and I sell every animal before it gets to the slaughter house with repeat orders.”
Now his system is the polar opposite of an intensive finishing unit and he strives for a minimal cost base.
“I am a relatively small-scale farmer and I have to keep my costs of production to a minimum. I try to finish all my cattle off-grass and calves and cows are never fed concentrate when outside,” he says.
Despite this, the pedigree cattle which do not make the grade as breeding animals are slaughtered at 13 months to 14 months at 500kg liveweight having attained these weights mostly from grass and grass silage alone.
Mr Mellor believes the Simmental is the perfect animal for his system and for many dairy and beef producers who are looking for an animal which will perform consistently.
“The Simmental generally has an excellent temperament and is fertile and she will calve at two years old and then give a calf each year.
“I am a great believer in grass and this is what the Simmental is designed for. The cows have plenty of milk so there is no need to feed corn to push the calf to get the growth,” he says.
Mr Mellor now achieves a minimum conception rate of 70 per cent to first service across his herd and believes this is down to the breed and genetics, but also the disease status at Higher Farm.
“We have been a closed herd for eight years and we take every precaution to ensure we keep all sources of infection out. We use AI on all our cows and heifers and I choose bulls with good Estimated Breeding Values for calving ease and growth rates and some history to ensure reliability.”
Adopting a strict protocol on his own farm to minimise the risk of disease coming into the herd has paid dividends and Mr Mellor is keen to persuade other farmers of the benefits of stringent disease precautions on-farm.
“A few years ago, the North West Livestock Programme was offering subsidised blood tests to farmers and we took advantage of this and tested for everything. We were completely clear, so now the emphasis has to be on maintaining this disease-free status.”
Mr Mellor is a strong advocate for the ‘tag and test’ approach now recommended by many vets as a means of identifying BVD PIs and ensuring their removal from the herd.
He says:“Tag and test is a fantastic tool. It costs an extra £3 per animal over normal identification tags when you tag your calf. If the testing laboratory identifies a PI, it is vital this animal is destroyed as they are virus factories. The temptation for some may be to try and rear the calf but it will rarely thrive and the costs to the business may be enormous.
“Farmers can do so much to protect their herd from BVD and it will pay them back 10 times over,” he adds.
“All our calves grow well and our antibiotic use is now virtually zero because we rarely have cases of scours or pneumonia. The cost savings to the business are considerable.”
Mr Mellor believes vaccination should not be seen as a cure all, it will help prevent serious abortion issues but farmers will never beat the disease until they eliminate all the PIs. He does recommend vaccination in certain instances though.
“Vaccination will prevent healthy animals from contracting the infection if they are sold off-farm, so I vaccinate all animals when I sell them to other breeders because I do not necessarily know the disease status of the farm they are sold to.”
He recommends testing all animals for BVD before they come onto the farm and even then they should be isolated for a period before being turned out with the rest of the herd.
“It is also important to protect your boundaries. We are lucky here because there are more horses than cows in this area but where I do have neighbours with cattle I double fence.”
Mr Mellor is Chairman of the NFU’s North West Livestock Board and this has allowed him to devote his energies to improving animal health across the region. He has been instrumental in making progress towards securing funding for a programme to eliminate BVD across the English cattle herd, in line with similar initiatives in Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.
“Farmers will be the biggest beneficiary if we eradicate BVD. We have now drawn up a strategy which involves the NFU, vets, academics, auctioneers, breed societies, industry representatives and farmers.
“If we can make it work, it will be the first time our industry has come together. Government is not going to do it for us but we hope it will assist.”
Mr Mellor is also at the forefront of a recently-launched survey to identify whether or not badgers in the south east of Greater Manchester area are infected with TB.
Although he is in a TB4 testing area, due to a local breakdown he finds himself drawn into a radial testing regime. This has spurred Mr Mellor into action in the fight against TB.
“We see every scenario in the North West because in Cheshire TB is now commonplace, whereas in Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cumbria, cases are still thankfully few and far between.”
Meanwhile, on his own farm, Mr Mellor is taking action to reduce the likelihood of his own cattle coming into contact with badgers, whether the badger population proves to be infected or not.
“I have sheeted steel doors on my buildings so I can completely exclude wildlife. Silage is fed in central passageways and nothing is fed outside. I no longer put mineral tubs in the fields and instead I bolus all the cattle. Badgers love mineral tubs and cow corn so I never creep feed.”
Mr Mellor is evidently keen to lead by example but he recognises the scale of the challenge in persuading other farmers to engage with the war on disease.
“Every farmer with breeding stock should know the health status of his herd and we must be more proactive in protecting our cattle from infection. We need to ask more questions when we purchase stock and we will need the help of vets to get the message out,” Mr Mellor says.