Farmers frequently convince themselves that their biosecurity is much better than in reality, Northern Ireland’s most senior vet has said.

And it could be costing the region dearly when it comes to tackling diseases such as TB.

It comes as TB compensation is expected to cost £24 million this year (€27.17 million) – almost double the £12.6 million (€14.3 million) it cost four years ago.

Chief veterinary officer Robert Huey said farmers were “good” at biosecurity and making the effort to keep their herds disease-free – but added that there was still room for improvement.

Huey said a multi-faceted approach to tackling TB was needed, as highlighted in the TB Strategic Partnership Group (TBSPG) report.

TBSPG is an independent advisory group tasked with developing an action plan for a progressive and sustained reduction of TB, with a view to eventual eradication.

Annual questionnaire

Huey said: “Biosecurity is only one of the aspects of this disease – and it’s an important one. A recent improvement that we have brought in is to have a vet annually go through a very simple biosecurity questionnaire with the farmer.

“We are very keen that this doesn’t just become a TB biosecurity questionnaire, because biosecurity is the same whether you are talking about BVD or Johne’s disease.

“Rather than having a biosecurity plan for each disease, let’s just have one; cut down on the red tape, cut down the administration involved in this and make practical measures that can realistically be introduced.”

Do you operate a closed herd?

Huey explained he often asked farmers if they have a closed herd and they say ‘yes’.

He said farmers will often act in good faith, thinking they are fulfilling all of the criteria to be a closed herd – when in reality they are not.

You ask: ‘Surely farmers know about biosecurity by now?’ But time and time again in farmers’ meetings I ask individual farmers from the platform: ‘Is the biosecurity on your farm good?’

“And they will say yes. Then I’ll ask if they operate a closed herd and they’ll say yes.

“And then I’ll ask them if they buy a bull? And they say yes.

“And I say I thought they operated a closed herd. And they’ll say: ‘Ach, but you have to buy a bull.’

“Next I’ll ask if they buy any replacement heifers. They’ll say yeah; they buy a few pedigree replacement heifers.

Then I’ll say you’re not operating a closed herd.

“You often get the answer: ‘But I wasn’t talking about pedigree heifers – and sure they all come from herds with a high health status anyway.’

“But it does make a difference to your biosecurity.”

Does your contractor wash the tanker?

Huey also said the affects of using contractors on the farm should not be under-estimated. He explained that it took microscopic levels of the disease to spread TB through slurry.

As a result, he said anyone using a slurry contractor should make sure the tanker is washed between farms.

He said: “We know TB bacteria can survive in slurry for six months. You think of the size of a slurry tanker and then realise that the infected dose is just five or six bacteria – and then you bring on a half tanker of slurry and add it to your farm.

“It’s not that farmers aren’t thinking about biosecurity; it’s just that they don’t concentrate on the things that matter – and these same things matter, no matter what the disease is.”