Opinion

Is slurry the missing link in the TB eradication chain?

I commend the latest attempts by agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue to get agreement on a comprehensive Bovine Tuberculosis (TB) eradication campaign. I also welcome the public support for this initiative from a number of farm bodies, including the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (IICSA) and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA).

Let’s hope they don’t forget the very salient fact that we live on an island and, at the end of the day, we need an All-Ireland approach to the problem, if we are to eradicate the scourge of bovine TB once and for all.

Meanwhile, north of the border, the scourge of bovine TB is also gathering momentum. Farmers in the north are increasingly of the view that they will be asked to partly fund a future eradication and compensation scheme.

Factors driving TB spread

Brian Walker is the current chair of Northern Ireland’s Pedigree Cattle Trust. He believes that three key factors are driving the bovine TB epidemic at the present time: bovine to bovine transmission; badger to bovine contact; and the fact that cattle slurry represents a source of live TB bacteria.

He cites well known UK vet Dick Sibley as the expert on all of these matters. Sibley visited Northern Ireland earlier prior to the onset of the Covid-19 lockdown, at which time he highlighted all of these matters plus his assertion that asymptomatic cattle are very important vectors in the spread of TB.

The issue of slurry acting as a reservoir of TB is new to me. I am aware that back in the day when cattle were wintered on straw, the bedding heated it up as it turned to compost. This process was responsible for killing off many of the bugs in the manure, which in turn lessened its potential to constitute a source of TB infection when spread on grazing land the following spring.

However, if it turns out that slurry is a significant TB risk, then this raises many questions with regard to its use as a grassland fertiliser. Yes it can continue to be used on silage ground. But surely many questions have to be asked regarding the spreading of cattle slurry on grazing paddocks – particularly during the spring and summer months.

The good news about the slurry factor, where TB is concerned, is that farmers have it totally within their gift to control it. However, the same cannot be said about wildlife.

Wildlife conservation bodies have a problem with the selective culling of infected badgers. But surely this is a counter-intuitive approach to be taking. At the end of the day the best outcome for all our rural areas must be to have healthy cattle living in harmony with an equally healthy badger population.