A clampdown on TB inconclusives has been confirmed by the Department of Agriculture (DAFM).
Their revised internal management guidance for TB herds is that when a breakdown occurs, cattle which previously tested inconclusive in the herd should be removed as in-contacts, with compensation payable.
And when four or more inconclusives are disclosed at a herd test, they should be deemed reactors, with compensation payable.
This represents a significant advance from the previous internal guidance for managing TB breakdowns —that removal of high-risk animals be considered, such as older inconclusive animals, in order to reduce the risk of infection spreading undetected from inconclusives which have TB but are immunocompromised and thus test falsely negative.
The Department says about 2,000 cattle per year test inconclusive to the TB skin test. It is estimated that around 20% of these are truly infected and spread TB.
They may repeatedly retest falsely negative due to immunosuppression caused by TB, yet silently spread disease in the herd.
Since 2012, inconclusive cattle have been confined to the herd of disclosure, and cannot move, other than to slaughter. Herdowners are strongly advised to cull them, as they present a significant risk of future disease breakdowns. Those not culled are often implicated in subsequent breakdowns.
For example, 21% of herds with inconclusives that retested negative in 2013 had a breakdown in the next three years. Too many herds retain these inconclusives, rather than cull them, say Department officials.
The TB Stakeholders Forum recommended additional inconclusives measures, such as blood testing and removing them. This may be included in the new TB strategy being prepared.
Stakeholders’ submissions to the TB Forum also included a request to remove animals deemed higher risk following a TB breakdown.
The TB Forum includes representatives from the food industry, farmers, Irish Wildlife Trust, UCD, DAFM, and others.
However, farmers are unhappy with the change to removal of animals previously inconclusive, which have since had clear tests.
IFA Animal Health Chairman Pat Farrell also sharply criticised the Department of Agriculture deeming tests where four or more animals test inconclusive as reactors.
He said the Department implemented these changes without discussion or consultation with farmers.
Mr Farrell said removing previous inconclusives will impact severely on farmers.
He said, “This latest change to the implementation of the TB programme severely impacts on the income of farmers and was imposed without any consultation. This is despite claims that all stakeholders would have the chance to input into decision-making on the programme”.
The IFA chairman said this latest move by the Department of Agriculture is particularly disappointing given the enormous efforts made by farmers throughout this Covid-19 pandemic to ensure the TB eradication programme continued.
Pat Farrell said, “Farmers have enough of the Department of Agriculture’s continual refusal to address the critical issues in the TB programme. The new Minister for Agriculture will have a job to maintain farmer support for the programme if the current approach continues”.
The Irish Cattle & Sheep Farmers’ Association has said the Department of Agriculture was wrong to introduce new TB protocols around removal of inconclusives in advance of substantive issues around compensation being decided upon.
“ICSA does not dispute the need for the guidelines around inconclusives to be firmed up, but restricting herds based on inconclusive results is a step too far,” said ICSA Animal Health & Welfare chair Hugh Farrell.
“Inconclusives should not be deemed reactors unless they are part of a TB breakdown, and a herd should not be locked-up on the basis of having inconclusives alone, under any circumstances.”
“Farmers deserve scientific proof that there is TB on their farm, if they are to be expected to take a big financial hit by being locked-up.”
ICSA also insists that a clear result at an annual herd test be valid for one year. “Too many farmers are receiving notifications about doing their herd tests months in advance of their due date,” said Mr Farrell.
ICSA also wants the TB test exemption for calves aged up to 120 days removed.
“This was introduced as a temporary measure as a result of Covid-19.
“It has served its purpose, and we must now revert back to 42 days, as a matter of urgency if we are serious about eradicating this disease,” said Mr Farrell.
However, this stance may put ICSA on course for a collision with dairy farmes, with ICMSA calling for the sale of calves within Ireland up to 120 days of age without a TB test to left in place, after Covid-19.
Lorcan McCabe, Deputy President of ICMSA, said: “Given the seasonal nature of calving in Ireland, with peak sales in the February to May period, allied to the changing farming structure, and growth in part time farming, an older calf is often more attractive to many buyers, and the current 42-day TB test requirement is a major barrier that impacts on the age of sale of the calf.
“The introduction of the 120-day requirement due to Covid-19 was a welcome development, and the feedback from farmers is that it has also impacted positively on how they market their calves, with farmers being able to meet the demand from some farmers who require an older calf, with the sellers also getting a better price for that calf”.