As every livestock farmer in Northern Ireland knows, TB has been an ongoing scourge on our industry for over 50 years. During that period, farmers have frequently endured heavy financial losses along with the stresses that accompany losing livestock and having their herds restricted.
Following the release of the TB Strategic Partnership Group’s interim report in June, the UFU animal health and welfare committee has held a number of meetings with DARD, AFBI and the IFA to gain a better understanding of the science surrounding this disease in order to better inform its response to this consultation.
Throughout this process, one line has remained consistent regardless of the source – “TB is a complex, multi-factorial disease that has proven difficult to eradicate worldwide”. This is mainly due to the characteristics of the disease itself, the difficulties involved in accurate diagnosis, the existence of reservoirs in other wildlife species and the fragmented nature of NI agriculture that leads to increased cattle movements and ultimately more lateral herd check tests.
Within the report, the group has spelt out that there will be no silver bullet to TB eradication, and that reaching eradication will require the use of a wide range of control measures aimed at addressing disease spread within both the cattle and the wildlife populations.
To this end, the group has put forward a number of suggestions for consideration. These range from the creation of an oversight board for TB eradication within NI in order to gain a better buy-in from all industry stakeholders, changing how we test for TB to use a combination of skin testing and Gamma interferon testing in order to increase the removal of diseased animals, introducing a system of herd risk categorisation similar to that in New Zealand to allow farmers to make more informed buying decisions, wildlife controls - be they through vaccination, removal or a combination of both, improvements to on-farm biosecurity though measures such as reducing nose to nose contact between herds, protecting feed stores from wildlife, pre-movement testing from high risk herds, requirements for farmers moving livestock to land more than five miles away to set up a new herd number to reduce unneeded testing.
Inevitably, each of these proposed measures will have a cost associated with them, and ultimately each will have to undergo an appropriate cost/benefit analysis before any decision is made. However, with the annual cost of TB already estimated to be between £27-£30 million per year, the big question will be “who is going to pay the bill for these new measures”?
With the Stormont budget coming under increasing pressure to fill a £600 million welfare hole and the DARD budget continuing to be squeezed, attention has turned to see if the industry is willing to foot the bill of these proposed eradication measures.
At this stage, the view of the EU Food and Veterinary Office is that the compensation paid to farmers in NI is generous in comparison to other countries. For example, in ROI farmers contribute almost €30 million per year towards TB eradication through disease levies and payments towards an annual herd test. In NZ, legislation provides compensation to 65% of fair market value of the animal and a levy of $14 NZ per head and 2 cents NZ per kg of milk solid is collected.
In England and Wales, the farmer receives 100% of the market value for the animal but may receive deductions for failure to test animals on time or failing to implement improved bio-security measures etc. As such, the group is asking farmers to consider several possible options to fund these proposals: reducing compensation or switching to a capped compensation approach, no additional valuation for pedigree status, the introduction of a disease levy, asking farmers to pay for one annual herd test.
Undoubtedly, any increase in on-farm costs at a time when the industry is in crisis would be an extremely bitter pill for any farmer to swallow and DARD themselves have said that many may find the cure more unpalatable than the disease itself. However, with this consultation, farmers once again have the opportunity to have their say in how we as an industry move forward towards eradicating this disease.
At this stage, there does appear to be a general acceptance from scientists, officials, politicians and some environmental groups of the long standing UFU position that asking farmers to take a reduction in compensation or impose more stringent bio-security measures whilst ignoring the fact that around 15% of NI badgers are infected with TB compared to 0.6% of cattle is akin to patching a pin-hole on one side of the ship and ignoring the gaping hole in the other.
However, whether farmers are capable of shouldering more of the financial burden needed to fund these measures at a time when many are facing their poorest income in years remains extremely questionable and any commitment to do so would undoubtedly have to come with a greater say in how the eradication program is administered and some assurance that measures will be taken to address TB in local wildlife.
To this end, the animal health and welfare committee would welcome any member feedback on this consultation ahead of submitting the UFU’s response on 4th September.