Dairy producer Bryony Symms admits the campaign against Johne’s disease on her family’s Dorset farm has become something of an obsession.
“It is the only way to do it,” she says, with an unwavering determination to wipe out the disease from Batsons Farm in Adber, between Yeovil and Sherborne, close to the Somerset border.
“Once you start looking into it, you appreciate the impact it has on other health issues – from cell counts and lameness to fertility and general performance. Johne’s affects every aspect of a cow’s life and drags a herd down.”
Mrs Symms started her campaign late in 2012 along with her husband Robert and their son Jake, who jointly run the 182-hectare (450-acre) holding with the help of one full-time member of staff. The impetus to do so came from just two thin cows.
Mrs Symms says: “They were the type which would not put on weight whatever you fed them. People do not often have clinical cases such as this, as these cows usually leave the herd for some other reason before they get to this stage.”
But the two cows – along with about a dozen others – came back with positive results when the couple decided to use NMR’s HerdWise service and test individuals for Johne’s disease.
Mrs Symms says: “We were horrified by the results. It is not that we were overwhelmed with infected cows, but about 15 out of 180 tested came back positive, which was far more than we would have liked. They said around 50 per cent of the herd were probably infected.”
The family began the process of dealing with the chronic intestinal disease – caused by mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (often shortened to Map) – by discussing a plan with their vet Owain Jenkins from the Delaware Veterinary Group.
At the time, the Symms were running 180 milkers plus dry cows and followers from a ramshackle assortment of farm buildings, ranging from traditional stone barns with tin roofs to a shed erected in the 1970s.
Mrs Symms says: “Conditions for cows really were not good. In winter, they were bedded on straw, everything was very cramped, buildings were impossible to thoroughly clean, the yard was on a slope and ventilation was poor.
“We could easily have 10 cases of mastitis running at one time and cows would readily slip in the yard. Bactoscans were likely to be more than 100 and we struggled to keep somatic cell counts [SCCs] at fewer than 300. It was soul destroying to see the amount of milk we were tipping down the drain.”
The herd’s production at the time was about 7,500 litres and, unbeknown to the Symms, the existence of so much stress was probably contributing to the impact Johne’s and other infectious diseases were having on stock.
Mr Symms says: “We really appreciate now what a huge influence stress has on cattle health. We have analysed our cows in groups and found a disproportionate number of high SCC cows also had Johne’s; the same could be said for lameness.”
The decision was finally taken to rebuild the farm’s facilities and a plan took shape to build on a greenfield site some 500 metres (1,640ft) from the original farm.
Today, the milking herd is run from the brand new facilities, completed in December 2013 and including a 200-stall cubicle shed, a cubicle pen for imminent calvers and a brand new 16/32 parlour.
Mr Symms says: “Basically, we have gone from having a youth hostel to a five-star hotel. Most importantly, we do not think we could have undertaken the Johne’s control plan with the old set-up.”
With the new premises facilitating all which is involved with disease control, the Symms family took to the task with a new vigour.
Mrs Symms says: “We took the decision not to cull the Johne’s-infected cattle unless they were scouring and showing clinical signs of the disease. But they would be put in calf to beef rather than dairy so there was no chance of infection spreading to the next generation of replacement heifers.
“In 2013, we moved on to powdered milk for all replacement heifer calves, and last year we invested in a pasteuriser for colostrum.
“Cows testing positive have all their colostrum discarded or pasteurised and fed to male Holsteins or beef calves while any surplus colostrum from cows testing negative is frozen.
“I will use a dam’s own colostrum for dairy heifer calves if I can get it pasteurised in time, but this takes several hours, which is usually too long to wait for a calf’s first feed.
“Usually, I will use frozen colostrum from a named cow instead and if absolutely necessary I will top up with powdered colostrum.
“We want to get four litres of high quality colostrum – measured with a colostrometer – into the calf within four hours of birth and six litres in total within 12 hours.”
An important part of this process is removing a calf from its dam at the first opportunity, ideally before it has had the chance to suck.
“A calf can easily pick up infected manure from cows’ teats, as although no dairy replacements are born to known Johne’s mothers, we may well find the mother is positive for the disease at her next test.
“Johne’s tests are notoriously erratic and positive cows can subsequently become negative, but once a cow has tested positive, we assume this is her status.”
Mr Symms is fastidious about how he milks his newly-calved cows, paying a greater attention to detail than in the main milking herd.
He says: “In the main herd, we dry-wipe before milking, but freshly-calved cows are pre-dipped and dried to keep colostrum clean. Although pasteurisation will kill Johne’s in milk, it cannot penetrate a lump of dirt which may be harbouring bacteria.”
Mrs Symms says any infected cows will be kept in a completely separate pen for calving and far away from uninfected calvers.
She says: “The best premise is to assume all muck contains Johne’s.”
The main thrust of the campaign at Batsons Farm continues to be on youngstock as it is young animals less than three months old which are most susceptible to infection.
Mrs Symms says: “I have become obsessive about the detail with youngstock, and I am obsessive about steam-cleaning. Everything is scrubbed to within an inch of its life, including calf hutches and the livestock trailer, even if theoretically these things could never have been exposed to Johne’s.
“We make sure we do not feed silage to any dairy heifer less than a year old, as slurry goes on to grass, and although Johne’s cannot multiply outside the animal, it can survive for a long time in the soil. For the same reason, we do not allow sheep on land which youngstock of less than a year old will graze, as sheep can also carry the disease.”
Whether the effort the family is making towards Johne’s eradication is paying off is too early to say.
Mr Symms says: “In our herd, we have tended to find positive results from animals of about four years old, despite the fact they contract the disease at a young age. This means it will be several years before infected animals of this age would not appear in the system.
“Heifers calving now may still have the disease, but we would hope to see dramatic decreases in the next three years or so.
“Calf health certainly looks a lot better in general, but there is no doubt early colostrum and hygiene have helped with many issues, including cryptosporidium, and we hope calves born in late 2014 and 2015 will not go on to have Johne’s disease.”
However, changes the herd has already experienced have been associated with the new accommodation. Production has risen to 10,029 litres at 3.93 per cent fat and 3.21 per cent protein; cell counts are running at 150 and Bactoscans are down in the teens – and all with little change to the genetics in the herd.
Mrs Symms says: “With this year’s good silage, they are really starting to motor, and with high levels of comfort and welfare in the new dairy and the obvious lack of stress, we are hopeful of overcoming Johne’s in the next five years.”
Batsons Farm facts
Key Johne’s control measures on Batsons Farm