Bovine TB: a Quick Guide and Advice on Minimising Risk

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Bovine TB (bTB) is an infectious disease of cattle caused by Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) bacterium. In cattle, M. bovis bacterium causes chronic respiratory disease that can spread to and from other mammals and people. Despite clinical symptoms of the disease being uncommon, bTB presents one of the biggest economic challenges to cattle farming in the UK. Herds that are found to have bTB are subject to movement restrictions and slaughter of reactor animals – in some high risk cases, the entire herd may have to be slaughtered.

Bovine TB: a Quick Guide and Advice on Minimising Risk

How does bTB spread?

The primary transmission route of bTB is cattle to cattle. The disease is caught by inhaling the bacterium, and as a result, it is easily transmitted when animals are in close contact. Animal density plays a significant role in the transmission of the disease.

The bacterium is also spread between cattle and badgers, directly and indirectly. By coming into contact with badgers directly or via their sets, cattle can easily contract the disease. Badgers are believed to be the most important wildlife reservoir of M. bovis and pose a tangible risk to livestock health. 

What is TB breakdown?

TB breakdown is the term used to describe a herd which has lost its Official TB Free (OTF) status due to a suspected or confirmed case of bTB. There are several circumstances in which a herd may lose its OTF status:

  • One or more animals testing positive to a skin test
  • One or more animals having two consecutive inconclusive skin tests
  • One or more animals testing positive to private interferon-gamma blood test 
  • One or more clinical cases where a live animal shows symptoms including weakness, lethargy, difficulty breathing, chronic coughing, severe weight loss
  • One or more repeat cases where lesions of TB are found in the carcass
  • One or more slaughterhouse cases where lesions of TB are found in the carcass of an animal routinely sent for slaughter

It is also possible to lose OTF status by allowing statutory testing to become overdue. Information regarding statutory testing can be found on the UK Government website. The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) is also able to provide guidance on routine testing.  

How to protect your herd from bTB?

TB Hub recommends five key actions to protect yourself and your neighbours from bTB infection:

  • Restrict contact between badgers and cattle by introducing barriers and understanding the activities of local badger populations
  • Manage cattle feed and water to restrict accessibility to badgers and ensuring food and water is fresh and clean, and that waste milk fed to calves is pasteurised 
  • Stop infected cattle entering your herd by understanding the TB history of new animals before purchase and testing them post movement
  • Reduce risk from neighbours by checking local outbreak information, introducing effective barriers and avoiding the sharing of equipment, vehicles and grazing 
  • Minimise infection from manure by storing for a long period of time and allowing a number of months after spreading before allowing grazing

The TB Advisory Service (TBAS) is able provide a free consultation and advice service for farmers in High Risk and Edge areas of England. The initiative aims to help farmers understand the changes they can make on their own farms to reduce the risk and impact of a TB breakdown. The TB Advisory Service is able to arrange an on-farm visit from an advisor to provide bespoke recommendations and advice on bTB management. Further information about the TBAS advice service can be found here

More information

ADAS is able to provide specialist knowledge and consultancy services for cattle farmers who would like to understand more about the risks of bTB and means of managing risks to their farms. 

For more information about the services ADAS is able to offer to support your business, including the TBAS supported consultation service, please contact Geoffrey Fairfoull, Senior Consultant in our Agriculture and Land Management Team. 

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