Cows on a farm

TB Vaccination: Would it make South West farming more resilient?

In the first series of our podcast Farming Focus, host Peter Green talked to vet Ralph Drouin and farmer Max Sealy about what can be done to overcome bovine TB and whether vaccination is the silver bullet.

Bovine TB was so rare in 1984 when vet Ralph Drouin came across his first case, he didn’t know what it was whereas farmer Max Sealy has never known farming without it. His farm has been effectively ‘shutdown’ for 20 years. In fact, Max reckons he’s lost two years of his 27-year marriage to time spent TB testing!

And despite being 10 years into the government’s 25-year bovine TB eradication policy, 19,000 cattle have been lost to bovine TB in the last 12 months.

“The reason we are in this situation is because we’re in catch-up having failed to deal with the disease when it was at a more manageable level,” says Ralph.

Managing TB is about understanding the situation and having a workable strategy to deal with it, says Max. “While working within the legislation of testing and removal, it’s about trying to understand TB on your farm and learning how to deal with it, for example animal movements and grouping animals.”

What about vaccination against bovine TB?

“Vaccination must have a role, just as we use it for a number of diseases,” says Max. “If we can build up resistance in the population it is part of the longer-term disease control strategy.”

In a similar way to Covid, it’s about stopping the spread of the disease rather than eliminating it.

Trials are ongoing but being able to differentiate between infected and uninfected vaccinated animals using the DIVA (detection in vaccinated animals) skin test is a breakthrough.

The BCG vaccination fully protects 30%, partially protects 30% and does nothing for the rest, so biosecurity and other management factors remain paramount. If these are in place, Ralph suggests farmers “should have a degree of optimism”.

Infected animals excrete infection, so as vaccination can reduce the amount of infection in a herd overall and lead to fewer reactors. “So, vaccination has its benefits, but it does require farmers to do their bit to protect their herd from other risk factors,” concludes Ralph.

Management tips for controlling bovine TB

  • Biosecurity is important and needs to be approached like any other disease
  • Walk around the farm and identify the high-risk areas where keeping wildlife and cows apart is under threat
  • Look out for badger activity, such as animal tracks and badger latrines in grazing fields or near hedgerows
  • Fence off areas containing latrines with electric wire to keep cattle away
  • Don’t feed youngstock on the ground, use raised feeders
  • Prevent badgers from accessing water troughs
  • Reduce gaps under doors to below three inches (7-8cm) to prevent access to feed stores and livestock housing

For more information and support:

TBAS (TB Advisory Service): or 01306 779410