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Sunday 21 April 2019

Darragh McCullough: 'Farmers need leadership and a reality check if we are ever to get to grips with TB'

 

'It's farmers who pay the heaviest price in every way by prolonging the life of diseases like TB in the national herd' (Chris Bacon/PA)
'It's farmers who pay the heaviest price in every way by prolonging the life of diseases like TB in the national herd' (Chris Bacon/PA)
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Are farmers guilty of talking out of both sides of their mouth when it comes to disease control in the national herd?

The €5.5bn, 70-year-old saga that is our national TB programme is one of the oldest chestnuts around.

Each year, without fail, the media will trot out a sob story about a TB blackspot. It will be even more eye-catching if the breakdown was a dramatic event that resulted in the culling of a huge chunk of a herd.

Don't get me wrong - I know how financially painful and traumatic a disease breakdown is in a herd.

Seeing some of your best cows being selected and hunted into a lorry to be taken away to the factory. Years of meticulous breeding down the drain. Haggling with valuers. Taking a hit in the milk cheque.

And all because an animal tested 'inconclusive'.

Even worse is the nagging suspicion that the test can be a bit of a lottery. So I get it. Disease breakdowns, whether its TB, brucellosis, Johnes, BVD or anything else, is a crappy scene for farmers.

So the calls for increased badger culling, deer controls and financial supports are entirely understandable.

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But I am always flabbergasted by the farm bodies' outright refusal to accept Government proposals to improve disease controls.

The latest spat is over TB. Following the successful eradication of TB from Australia by restricting the trading by high-risk herds or areas, the Irish Department of Agriculture has looked to ramp up the restrictions that would apply to similar herds and areas here.

It would involve a suite of new rules that would prevent herds with a recent history of TB from trading with herds of a lower-risk status.

Problem herds and regions would be categorised based on risk so that buyers could make informed decisions about the biosecurity risks they were planning to bid on.

Compensation would also be linked to the number of measures that infected herds took to minimise the spread of the disease.

These measures will be unpalatable for any farmer unlucky enough to have a TB problem, but what's the alternative?

Dragging out the long-running battle with the disease for another 50 years? That's what UCD's disease expert Simon Moore reckons.

And with TB reactors on the rise again, and the disease control programme costing nearly €100m a year to run, who are we kidding?

It's farmers who pay the heaviest price in every way by prolonging the life of diseases like TB in the national herd. It's horrifying to think that up to €50m a year of farmers' money could disappear into the black hole that it is the Department of Agriculture's disease control budget.

But in an era when hospital waiting lists and homeless numbers remain stubbornly high, taxpayers might find it even more horrifying if they realised that they were footing the other €50m annually.

It's even more aggravating when you realise that the same farce is being played out with almost every disease of economic significance in the national cattle herd.

BVD has dragged on for years because farm leaders have played to the lowest common denominator and insisted on a softly-softly approach to persistent offenders that flouted the national programme rules and guidelines.

This, despite the fact that BVD eradication is calculated to boost farm profits by €100m annually through improved animal performance and lower veterinary costs.

And don't get me started on Johnes. The notion that we have a 'national' control programme in place when less than 10pc of the dairy herds are involved is a sad joke.

Animal Health Ireland have been trying to roll this out in some meaningful way for the last 10 years but at this rate it may all be for nothing. We currently have controllable levels of the disease, but if we continue the way we are it won't be long before we'll be approaching the same levels of endemic infection as the Dutch and the US are dealing with.

By that stage there's nothing anyone can do, and another golden opportunity to differentiate our milk and meat into premium markets is lost, forever.

Instead, farmers will be culling and treating cows for a wasting disease that cannot be eradicated.

Why farmers accept mickey mouse disease control programmes when their incomes are on the line beats the hell out of me.

Is it lack of awareness? A passive approach to how they are represented? An absence of strong leadership? You tell me.

In the meantime, farmers better get comfortable with disease levies, vet bills, and selling their product into the same low-value markets as everybody else on the planet for the rest of their lives.

Darragh McCullough farms in Meath and presents RTÉ's Ear to the Ground television programme

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