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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

TB or not TB?

Farmers may wish to switch off here. For those of you who are less familiar the rules and regulations surrounding British agriculture you may find this post surprising and, possibly (hmmm … let’s not get carried away here), interesting.

The Galloways doing their stuff in the marshy grassland

As both my regular readers will know, I have a small herd of Galloway cattle, currently totalling 18 members and comprising nine cows, one heifer (a young but mature female who has not calved), seven calves (born this spring and still suckling) and Sir Loin, the bull. They are on the land to do a job, helping in the nature recovery process through their chomping, stomping, scratching and defecating, as opposed to providing a purely economic resource (which, in their case, would be beef or calving services to create beef). They were selected because they are very hardy, so can stay outside all year round, unlike most UK cattle, eating (mainly) grass and doing their job. They are also relatively small and have no horns, so, for a novice like me, they are easier to handle than some other breeds. And finally, they are very good looking. Not that that was in any way a factor in their selection.

New calves on the march with their new yellow ear tags

So far, so good. However, there is a fair bit of bureaucracy surrounding keeping cattle. I think that this has mainly come about so that the authorities can try and control any outbreak of the various diseases that have had the potential to infect or wipe out a significant portion of the country’s cattle (or us, I guess). And we have a lot of cows. As of June 2022, the government tells us there were 9.6 million cattle, including calves, in the UK. The adult “breeding” population of 3.3 million was split roughly 45% versus 55% between beef and dairy … see Livestock populations in the United Kingdom at 1 June - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk). The diseases we worry about are things like bovine TB, foot & mouth disease and BSE (“mad cow disease”). The way we keep cattle (stock density, shed rearing and types of feed) obviously impact on the prevalence and spread of these diseases, but that it another story.



Because of all of this, any keeper of cattle in the UK has to be registered as such. The keeper’s land is given a County Parish Holding Number and the Animal and Plant Health Agency issues a Cattle Herd Mark for each herd. Every cow has a passport which moves with it if it changes hands. A new calf must be registered within 27 days of birth and given an ear tag with a unique number which will stay with it for life and is, of course, on the passport. Every cow movement on or off the holding must be registered online using the British Cattle Movement Service, along with any deaths, within 3 days. The result is that the authorities know the location of every cow in the country. All quite big brother … I’m not sure we’d all like to be so tightly managed!


Rapunzel's passport ... she's not well travelled

This information can of course provide good traceability and can also be used to manage any mandated regular testing. In my part of Wales, there is a requirement to test all cattle for TB once a year as well as within 60 days of a movement. The Animal and Plant Health Agency write to me to give me a window within which to get the testing done and I book this in with my vet. The government pays for the annual TB test, while I pay for any TB test that I need in order to move cattle between annual tests. For Cefn Garthenor, the test date this year had to be carried out in a window of a few weeks running up to 6 September.


In order to allow the vet to do the TB testing in a sensible way, the cattle need to be brought into a barn and moved through a cattle crush, which keeps the cow being tested still for everyone’s protection. I’ve trained my cows to follow a bucket containing a few handfuls of sugar beet pellets (essentially a sweet treat) which allows me to get them into the barn or move them around when required. When in the barn, the gate is shut and the only exit is then through the cattle crush, which is essentially a very solid metal cage / tunnel which can be closed at both ends. An adjustable neck brace then keeps the cow relatively still, allowing whatever procedure is required to be undertaken safely (for both cow and human).

Cattle crush ... may not be the best look, but by keeping a large cow still you prevent any harm to her or the vet. And why no photo with a cow in place? Too much else on my plate when the herd are going through ...

The TB test is a two-part affair. On the first day, two small patches of hair are shaved on the cow’s neck and then they get an injection into each. One site gets bovine tuberculin, the other avian tuberculin. Three days later, the vet checks for signs of a reaction (a swelling) around the injected sites, using a pair of callipers to compare the thickness of a fold of skin. A greater reaction to the bovine tuberculin relative to the avian version implies that there could be TB.


Now the cows aren’t stupid and getting them into the barn on the second occasion is trickier after having been injected the first time. Ideally you want a set up from the field they are in that corrals them via a funnel (man-made or natural) into the barn. Last year I really was not prepared and spent a stressful 30 minutes chasing the last couple of cows around a field trying to get them into the barn with the rest of the herd. All this while Merfyn, my very patient vet, stood waiting. No pressure then.


Eventually I let Gussy, the matriarch, out of the barn to help convince the others to come in. It worked, but I felt terrible. The cows were sweating and scared, having tried everything, including jumping the hedge and the fence on either side of it, to avoid the barn. This was much worse than anything the vet was going to do.


This year, Robert, the neighbour I could not do without, helped me set things up in a better way. He created the required funnel into the barn using a couple of very large trailers (the kind of thing that carries the big bales of hay you might get caught behind along a country lane) and things were much smoother, if not quite perfect (calves add a complication, as the cows are not just think of themselves but want to make sure they know where their calves are). I was very sweaty, but the cattle were fine. And all in before Merfyn arrived.


Quite a performance. And the end result? Not TB.

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