Robert and Bryony Symms are the inaugural winners of NMR’s HerdWise award, demonstrating best practice in Johne’s disease control. Ann Hardy went to visit them.
Dairy producer Bryony Symms admits the campaign against Johne’s disease on her family’s Dorset farm has become something of an obsession.
“It’s the only way to do it,” she says, with an unwa- vering determination to wipe out the disease from Batsons Farm, Adber, situated between Yeovil and Sherborne.
“Once you start looking into it, you appreciate the impact it has on other health issues – from things like cell counts and lameness to fertility and general perfor- mance. Johne’s affects every aspect of a cow’s life – it drags the herd down
Mrs Symms started her campaign – together with her husband Robert and their son Jake, who jointly run the 450-acre holding with the help of one full- time member of staff – late in 2012. The impetus to do so came from just two thin cows.
“They were the type which wouldn’t put on weight whatever you fed them,” says Mr Symms.
"People don’t often have clinical cases like 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.
“We were horrified by the results,” says Mrs Symms.
“It’s 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, and NMR also predicted the proportion of the herd likely to be infected based on these results.
“They said about 50% of the herd were probably infected,” she says.
The family began the process of dealing with the chronic intestinal disease – caused by Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis and often shortened to Map by discussing a plan with their vet, Owain Jenkins, from the Delaware Veterinary Group.
At the time of this conversation, the Symms were running their 180 milkers plus dry cows and followers from a make-do assortment of farm buildings.
“We really appreciate now what a huge influence stress has on cattle health,” says Mr Symms.
“And we can also analyse our cows in groups using InterHerd and have found a disproportionate number of high SCC cows also had Johne’s, and 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 from the original farm. With the new premises facilitating all which is involved with disease control, the Symms family took to the task with a new vigour.
“We took the decision not to cull the Johne’s infected cattle unless they were scouring and showing clinical signs of the disease,” says Mrs Symms.
“But they would be put in-calf to beef so there was no chance of infection spreading to the next generation of replacement heifers.
“In 2013 we also moved on to powdered milk for all replacement heifer calves, and last year we invested in a pasteuriser for the colostrum.
“Cows testing positive would have all of their colostrum discarded or pasteurised and fed to male Holsteins or beef calves, while any extra colostrum from cows testing negative would be frozen.
“I will use the 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 the calf’s first feed,” she says.
“So usually I will use frozen colostrum from a named cow instead, and if absolutely necessary I will top up with powdered colostrum.”
An important part of this process is removing the calf from the dam at the first opportunity, ideally before it has had the chance to suck.
“The calf can easily pick up infected manure from the cow’s 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,” she says. Erratic
“Johne’s tests are notoriously erratic and positive cows can subsequently become negative, but once a cow has tested positive we assume that is her status.”
Mr Symms is also fastidious about how he milks his newly-calved cows, paying a greater attention to detail than in the main milking herd.
“In the main herd we dry wipe before milking, but freshly-calved cows are pre- dipped and dried to keep the colostrum clean,” he says.
“Although pasteur- isation will kill Johne’s in the milk, it can’t penetrate a lump of dirt which may be harbouring the bacteria.
“The best premise is to assume all muck contains Johne’s,” adds Mrs Symms, who says any infected cow will be kept in a completely separate pen for calving and far away from uninfected calvers.
The main thrust of thecampaign at Batsons Farmcontinues to be on the youngstock as it is young animals – of less than three months old – which are most susceptible to infection.
“I have become obsessive about the detail with the youngstock and I am obsessive about steam cleaning,” says Mrs Symms.
“We also make sure we don’t feed silage to any dairy heifer under one-year- old as slurry goes on to the grass, and although Johne’s can’t multiply outside the animal it can survive for a long time in the soil,” she says.
“For the same reason, we don’t allow sheep on to land which youngstock will graze as sheep are also carriers of the disease.
“With this year’s good silage they are really starting to motor and we are hopeful of overcoming Johne’s in the next five years,” she adds.