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Practical developments in large animal practice

The focus was on sustainability, beef suckler herds and bovine tuberculosis at BCVA Congress 2019

The conclusion by Judith Capper of the Livestock Sustainability Consultancy is that there is a scarcity of good data on disease incidence and social impacts. This would appear to be a major problem if the case for healthy livestock leading to sustainable food is to be made; so, a discussion about the means to quantify the impacts of cattle health on industry sustainability generated some deep thoughts among veterinary delegates. The idea that social acceptability and consumer trust are the keys to cattle industry sustainability may seem rather split from day-to-day veterinary work, but it is not so.

Good health means fewer greenhouse gas emissions, with less feed and resources needed for production of food and lower operational costs. Diseases including ketosis and mastitis have a low impact on carbon production whereas bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and Johne’s have higher impacts. Prevention of disease is highly acceptable to consumers with vaccination being a positive factor. The challenge for veterinary surgeons is to increasingly demonstrate a dedication to improving cattle health.

There were no spare places in the workshop on engagement with beef suckler herds. The mix of vets attending truly covered the practice spectrum, from older experienced partners to recent graduates with original ideas. Paul Williams (MSD Animal Health) introduced the three workshop leaders, Ellie Burton, Kat Hart and Katherine Baxter-Smith, and there was a good interaction from everyone in looking forward, with recognition that developing better engagement with beef farmers is important. A suckler beef herd performance checklist has been developed and early assessment with farmers has uncovered some sobering details. Over 20 percent of the farmers would not contact their vet for calf scour problems, even when there are deaths, and over 10 percent would not involve their vet with pneumonia. Many beef farmers have no regular veterinary contact and feel that the vet cannot solve their problems. Veterinary surgeons indicate that they are not confident about suckler herd issues and are unaware of the detail of medicine use on the farm.

Suckler herds are a low input system and herd profitability is masked by subsidies. Few farmers weigh calves and many are resistant to recording. Calves born alive and calves weaned, per 100 cows put to the bull, are performance indicators that can introduce better monitoring of health. The performance checklist takes the vet around 30 minutes to complete and has been found to be a good introduction for closer engagement. There was discussion about developing veterinary practice meetings with the aim of encouraging farmers to spend money on good things, like disease prevention and tests, rather than bad things, like scours and difficult calvings. The suckler herd performance checklist is applied six monthly or annually and goes beyond the aspects included with Red Tractor. More information is available from MSD Animal Health.

An in-depth discussion about developments with bovine TB involved a technical panel chaired by David Barrett, following three presentations. Alastair Hayton described the results from trials applying the Enferplex Bovine TB antibody test to blood samples, 4 to 30 days after a skin test. The ability to correctly identify infected animals was shown to be increased to 95 percent. The trials have been limited to herds under TB restriction where the gamma-interferon test has already been used, in order to achieve OIE validation. The greatest benefit is expected to be earlier in a TB outbreak to maximise the identification of infected animals by detecting a different part of the immune response and permission is sought from government for wider application. There is also the practicality of applying the test to milk and veterinary practices are requested to submit samples from skin test positive cows.

Sarah Tomlinson explained that the TB Advisory Service has completed 1,064 farm visits. The project has one more year to run and the target is 2,400 visits. The visits have occurred 50:50 between high risk and edge areas. There have also been nearly 2,000 telephone advisory contacts. Each farm is limited to a single visit and a full assessment will be presented in due course, but the view is that farmers need support to manage their disease prevention activities and to understand breakdown situations.

James Russell, chair of the BCVA TB Policy Group, showed considerable enthusiasm for the BCVA Accredited TB Control Advisory Team (BAT-CAT). BAT-CAT vets would work alongside the Cattle Health Certification Standards TB programme. The aim is to increase veterinary involvement and to give control back to farmers through their vets. There was considerable discussion by delegates with Gordon Harkiss, Lindsay Heasman and Sue Mayer joining the speakers to make up the panel. The advantages of detecting infected animals and the difficulties experienced by the wildlife trusts in badger vaccination, together with the possibility of cattle vaccination were highlighted. Since the BCVA Congress, a policy paper has been distributed to members, with proposals for a change of emphasis and future relationships between government, private veterinary surgeons and farmers, the aim being an open and inclusive approach to achieve freedom from bovine TB by 2038.

Outgoing BCVA President David Barrett (left) and incoming President Nikki Hopkins (right)

Gareth Hateley and Neil Carter pointed out that 686 vets have taken the BCVA online training to be involved in the BVD Stamp It Out Campaign, but that more are needed. The project has a budget of £5.7 million; 4,764 farms have enrolled with a target of 8,000. Over 700 hunts for persistently infected cattle have taken place and the budget allows for 1,600. Initially, 130 veterinary practices enrolled but some have yet to use their allocation of resources. Practices that are not expecting to participate as fully as anticipated are asked to contact the project because other veterinary practices are asking to become involved.

Peter Orpin advised that 861 vets have completed the Johne’s refresher course and that of the herds contributing to the milk supply 78 percent are compliant with the National Johne’s Management Plan (NJMP), with 95 percent targeted. Most farmers recognise the value of the programme with no stigma attached to testing and engagement. The difficulties experienced include testing but not acting on the findings, a lack of segregation of animals, positive animals not culled and poor hygiene in the maternity pens. The aim is to create a low-risk MAP environment and the veterinary review should be considered an educational opportunity.

A session on Q fever combined the epidemiology, discussed by Nick Wheelhouse, with personal experience and monitoring, addressed by Helen Scott and Kythe MacKenzie respectively. There is a message for veterinary practices to be aware of Coxiella in herds with fertility issues. Helen described her serious experience and said “you think that your head will explode” having endured nine months of tiredness. Coxiella is highly contagious and highly environmentally stable. It is considered endemic throughout Europe with intermittent shedding and in South West England a study showed 70 percent of dairy herds having positive bulk tank samples. Few clinical cases are recorded in animals, the exception being a large outbreak of disease in goat herds in the Netherlands 10 years ago. No human vaccine is available in the UK. The organism travels in dust on the wind and can occur many miles from the original source. Signs in cattle are subtle but in milking sheep and goats the disease is implicated in abortion storms and vaccination of goats, as in the Netherlands, should be considered. Strict hygiene by veterinary surgeons and farmers during parturition is advised.

At the congress dinner the incoming President was presented with the chain of office in an informal manner. Nikki Hopkins, of the Hafren Veterinary Group, Powys, accepted the honour of becoming President from Professor David Barrett.

BCVA Congress 2020 will be held at the Telford International Centre from 22 to 24 October 2020

Richard Gard


Following a 16-year apprenticeship with Beecham, Richard established a project management and development consultancy and writes regular contributions for the veterinary press.

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