Our sloppy approach to the spread of disease on farms cannot go on

John Shirley

Again this week I revert to the recent Teagasc beef event at Grange for my sermon.

The people came for a beef lesson. They went home with a lesson on both beef and biosecurity.

Technically the Grange farm should have been locked up during that Open Day because of a TB outbreak on the station. On previous occasions, such a TB outbreak had led to open days at Grange being cancelled or postponed. This time around the Department of Agriculture allowed the event to go ahead, but with stringent conditions attached, including;

  • The normal disinfectant footbaths and vehicle-wheel disinfection.
  • Zero contact between visitors and the cattle. A double fence was erected to ensure that visitors were kept at a distance from cattle at all times.
  • No visitors were allowed onto the farmyard of the research station.
  • All visitors were fitted with disposable shoe or boot covers. These were changed for new ones half way through the information circuit. Thoughtfully for us stiffer mortals, chairs were provided at the point where we had to remove and put on new feet covers.
  • Plans to bring visitors onto paddocks to look at pre- and post-grazing sward heights had to be abandoned.

Contrast this level of precaution and biosecurity with the average visitor to your farm. Think even about the precautions taken by professionals such as vets or AI technicians as they move from farm to farm. Hopefully they are doing the job right.

It's many years since I was a student in a lab where we cultured the day-to-day organisms we carried on our fingers. It was a shock some days later to see what grew on the agar dish. Just because we cannot see micro-organisms on our hands, boots, clothes, etc, does not mean that we don't carry them around with us, leaving a few bugs on everything we touch.

Nobody wants to turn farms into no-go areas but a bit more awareness of the threat of disease transfer would not go amiss. This is even more important now with the Teagasc and Department of Agriculture policy of promoting discussion groups that routinely visit each other's farms.

Usually when we get onto another farm we are not content just to sit back and admire stock from a distance. The closer we can get to animals and the more prodding and handling we do, the happier we seem to be.

How many times have we seen large groups of people around a farmyard walking on the silage or the fodder in front of the cattle, maybe even climbing into the cattle pens?

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In Grange, the biosecurity was implemented to minimise any threat from the TB germ, but the same measures also protect against other infectious disease. Biosecurity barriers work both ways -- protecting people from bugs on the cattle, and protecting cattle from the bugs carried by people. The latter may have been the most important in Grange as the management had gone to a lot of bother selecting breeding stock that were free of BVD, Johnes, Neospora and IBR.

From this collection of baddies, BVD has caused, and is causing, hardship and widespread financial loss on farms. Because it compromises the immune system, BVD renders cattle more vulnerable to scours, pneumonia, mastitis and infertility. Animal Health Ireland (AHI) has identified BVD as the disease that needs priority tackling for Irish cattle farming.

Ideally we could eradicate BVD from Ireland as has already happened on some continental states. (Switzerland eradicated BVD over a two-year campaign. The Scottish parliament is giving financial backing to BVD eradication.)

Later this year a national plan to eradicate BVD from Ireland may be unveiled. Using guidelines from AHI, individual herdowners have tackled BVD and got rid of it from their herd. The result has been a transformation in general herd health.

There is no point in developing a high herd health status without bringing in accompanying biosecurity measures to protect that desired status. Pig farmers have led the way with the development of 'Minimal Disease' or high health status units. Visitors to such units are strictly controlled and even the staff has to shower entering and leaving the unit.

Cattle farms will never reach this level of protection, but the current casual approach to disease spread should not continue.

Double fencing to stop mixing with neighbours' cattle would be an excellent first step. Disinfectant footbaths should be the norm, maybe a facility to disinfect tyres as well.

A general heightening of awareness of disease threat; washing hands and changing clothes before going onto a farm , would help.

Now let us go out and practice what was preached at Grange.

Prayer for today: O Lord please make me improve my biosecurity.

Irish Independent

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