Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 11 June 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Animal Disease Eradication Programmes: Discussion with Animal Health Ireland
I welcome the witnesses to today's meeting. From Animal Health Ireland we have Mr. Joe O'Flaherty, CEO, Mr. Mike Magan, chairman, Mr. David Graham, programme manager, biosecure diseases, and Ms Finola McCoy, programme manager, CellCheck.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I now invite Mr. O'Flaherty to make his opening statement.
Mr. Joe O'Flaherty:
Animal Health Ireland, AHI, wishes to thank the Chairman for the invitation to today’s meeting and looks forward to the opportunity to engage with members on various aspects of the work which we are undertaking on behalf of the Irish agrifood sector.
This is the third time AHI has appeared before the joint committee. On the previous occasion, a detailed description of the organisation – its background, remit, structure, financing and programming priorities – were provided to the committee and while we are more than happy to answer questions from members on these and any other aspects of the organisation, this opening statement will concentrate on the major progress that has been made across the range of programmes in which we are involved.
In March 2012, Animal Health Ireland published its strategy for the period 2012 to 2014. The strategy, which was developed following extensive consultation with stakeholders, set out clear strategic priorities for the organisation for the period up to the end of 2014, and identified four priority programmes in which AHI will concentrate its resources over these three years. These are bovine viral diarrhoea, BVD, mastitis-somatic cell count, the CellCheck programme, Johne’s disease and infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, IBR. An outline of the progress made in relation to each of these programmes is provided hereafter, and members are invited to inspect the detailed business plans for these programmes, which are available from the AHI website. In addition to the four priority programmes, the strategic plan also committed AHI to undertaking work in the areas of biosecurity, calf health, parasite control and animal health economics. Taking account of the level of resources available to the organisation, the strategy sought to establish clear limits as to the scope of AHI’s activities; a clear decision was taken, for example, to limit our work to the bovine species for the period covered by the plan.
BVD is a disease of considerable economic importance to Irish farmers. A cost-benefit analysis commissioned by AHI placed the losses associated with this infection at €102 million per annum. The objective of the programme is to eradicate BVD from the national cattle herd by the end of 2020. Following the successful completion of a voluntary phase of the programme in 2012, in which some 10,000 farmers participated, the programme entered a compulsory phase on 1 January 2013. The legislative basis of the programme is provided by SI No. 532/2012 (Bovine Viral Diarrhoea Order 2012), which was published in Iris Oifigiúil on 28 December, 2012. Some of the key points of this order include: A requirement to test all calves born from 1 January 2013 onwards; a prohibition on sale of calves without a negative BVD result; and a requirement to carry out follow-up testing where persistently infected, PI, animals are identified.
The compulsory phase of the programme is divided into two three-year periods. In the first of these, running from 2013 to 2015, the emphasis is on tissue tag testing of newborn calves, using the modified national identity tag, with follow-up testing by blood sample and tag testing, as required. The second period, running from 2016 to 2018, will see the emphasis switching to monitoring by means of targeted blood and milk sampling. The level of farmer compliance with the programme in 2013 has been generally very good, with BVD test results on the ICBF database for over 97% of all calves registered. As of 3 June, 1,559,978 results had been recorded on the database since 1 January, and the prevalence of positive and inconclusive animals, at 0.73%, is very close to that which had been modelled by AHI prior to the commencement of the programme. AHI does have some concern at the rate at which PI animals are being retained on farms following identification, our data indicating that approximately 50% of these remain alive on the farms in which they were disclosed. The AHI technical working group on BVD is currently examining the potential impact on the programme objectives and timelines of the retention on farms of these highly infectious animals.
High somatic cell counts, SCC, an indicator of mastitis, have a major impact on the profitability of dairy farmers and dairy processors. A recent Teagasc study of the economic impact of mastitis on the profit of Irish dairy farms at five somatic cell count, SCC, thresholds showed a very significant inverse correlation between SCC and net farm profit. On the basis of this research, it can be stated that the average dairy farmer can improve net profitability by at least 1 cent per litre by improving mastitis control to reduce SCC to achievable and sustainable levels. Teagasc has just completed a second phase of the research, which will shortly be published and which will show that mastitis imposes significant additional costs at the processor level.
The CellCheck programme is the national mastitis control programme, which is co-ordinated and facilitated by Animal Health Ireland, and which is being developed and delivered in partnership with industry bodies representing farmers, processors, service providers and the Government. The objective of the programme is to facilitate the achievement and maintenance of a national average bulk milk somatic cell count of 200,000 cells per ml or less by 2020. The various sub-objectives are to: Set goals for improved SCC performance in the national dairy herd; build awareness of the problem among farmers and service providers; establish best practice for the control of mastitis; build the capacity of farmers and service providers to address this problem; and evaluate changes in the performance of the national dairy herd with respect to SCC.
Mastitis is a multi-factorial problem and the CellCheck programme attempts to address this by adopting a multidisciplinary approach, which involves the farmer, veterinary practitioner, milking machine technician, co-op milk quality advisers and Teagasc or other farm adviser. To date, some 240 service providers have been trained to deliver farmer workshops, approximately 40 of which have taken place to date this year. Programme resources which have been developed to date include the CellCheck farm guidelines, the CostCheck economic cost calculator and a detailed milk quality report, which is available to all farmers involved in milk recording.
The objectives of the Johne’s disease programme are threefold. First, to identify a core population of herds that test negative for Johne’s disease and to provide these farmers with the knowledge and professional supports to allow them to increase their confidence of being free of infection over time and to protect their herds from the ongoing risk of introduction of this disease. Second, to provide herds identified by the programme, or otherwise, as being infected, with the knowledge and professional supports to allow them to control and reduce the disease over time and ultimately move to a situation where a high confidence of disease freedom can be achieved. Third, to further underpin the quality of Irish dairy and beef produce in the international marketplace.
Considerable work has been in progress since 2010, by the AHI technical working group for Johne’s disease, under the chairmanship of Professor Simon More of UCD. The programme design developed by the TWG draws on international best practice for the control of the disease and on detailed disease modelling, carried out in conjunction with international consultants. AHI has also convened an implementation group, comprising all relevant stakeholder organisations, to carry forward the work of implementing and refining a control programme. The implementation group is currently examining the feasibility of rolling out a major pilot programme for the control of Johne’s disease, the components of which would be as follows: an information and awareness campaign, aimed at improving the understanding of Johne’s disease among farmers, veterinary practitioners and the industry; a process of initial herd screening for participating herds, based on blood or individual milk samples; a mechanism for capturing the results of testing which has already been undertaken by processor groups and individual farmers and which is aligned with the structured programme; the roll-out of a programme of farm advisory and risk assessment training involving participating farmers and accredited, trained veterinary practitioners; the development of a national database for the management of the disease, which will be hosted by ICBF; the development of the capacity to operate a system of risk-based trading for participating herds; and the establishment of a process of designation for laboratories carrying out testing as part of the programme.
In addition to the economic costs arising from direct farm-level losses, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, IBR, is also important because of the impact which it has on the ability of bulls to enter approved semen collection centres and because of the potential interference with live trade to countries which have approved control programmes in place and which have been granted additional guarantees by the European Commission, entitling them to apply restrictions to the importation of cattle from states which do not have approved control programmes in place. AHI intends to undertake a cost-benefit analysis to establish the rationale or otherwise for the initiation of a national programme for the eradication of IBR.
Subject to a positive outcome of this analysis and a mandate from its stakeholders, AHI would then proceed to establish a national eradication programme in the period from 2015 onwards. In the interim, the technical working group, under the chairmanship of Dr. Michael Gunn, is developing a range of technical resources, gaining a thorough understanding of international best practice, and identifying and seeking to address gaps in research in this area.
AHI considers that it has made significant progress on its mandate in the period since its establishment in 2009. This progress is testament to the strong support it has received from the industry stakeholders and the technical capacity which has been placed at its disposal free of charge by the many members of its technical working groups, which provide the scientific underpinnings for its programmes. The role of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation in providing the database services, fundamental to the operation of our various programmes, is gratefully acknowledged. Our close collaboration with Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland has been critical to ensuring that the control and eradication of the major unregulated infectious diseases can be undertaken on an all-island basis.
Many challenges remain to be addressed not just in terms of delivering on the objectives of our programmes, but also in terms of establishing an adequate and sustainable source of funding for an organisation which has moved rapidly into the delivery of major national programmes for economically important diseases of cattle.
I thank Mr. O'Flaherty for the presentation. Going back to BVD, it was mentioned that only 50% of PI animals have been disposed of. Should there be some incentive for people to get rid of these animals or is the economic argument sufficient to move them? Are we not compensating them because of current economic circumstances rather than breaking the precedent we had with other animals with a disease that we felt should be taken out of the herd, where we paid farmers for doing so?
If farmers were to be compensated for taking out these animals, how many would be involved and at what cost? It would appear to me numbers would be relatively small, about 0.37%.
It was stated that IBR was an influence on the live trade. Can that be quantified? How does it restrict the live trade? What countries does it restrict us to? What is the economic cost, taking into account that the more markets we have, the more likely it is that the existing markets will give a better price, because there will be more competition? We must avoid a situation where a small number of players control the whole market. I am interested to hear about the economic implications of not dealing with that disease.
I also thank Mr. O'Flaherty for his presentation. The major issue with BVD is lack of compensation, with 50% remaining on farms. From personal experience, I know very small farmers with perhaps half a dozen or ten calves. They cannot take any losses, which is a huge factor, so a compensation package is very important if we are to achieve eradication.
The EHA places a loss associated with infection at €102 million per annum. Is that based on the 50% reported figure without taking the other animals into consideration? I welcome the fact that the presentation stated that the all-Ireland approach was of benefit in any sort of disease eradication programme and animal welfare in general. It appears the group is satisfied with how it is working and the co-operation in the Six Counties, a welcome fact.
I thank Mr. O'Flaherty for his presentation. I am alarmed only 50% of PIs have been removed from the herd. It was mentioned there will be screening for Johne's disease. How many herds does the group hope to screen to get an accurate indication of the problem in Ireland? The presentation on the four diseases outlined a budget of €338,000 on overall expenditure.
Are there any data in other countries for an IBR screening programme on the percentage drop in the disease once the programme started? On the BVD figures, where only 0.73% animals are showing up as persistently infected, are there any comparative figures from other countries that have screening programmes for IBR? Would it be cost effective to have a screening programme for this?
My comments also relate to BVD. It is worrying to see only 50% of affected animals have been taken out. How dangerous are those animals if they are left there? I know of a couple of cases where the animals have been isolated but how dangerous would they be to animals in neighbouring fields or from time to time with animals in the herd? Where the cow is not a PI, it is difficult to see how the calf can be a PI.
It is important to adapt an all-Ireland approach to all animal health issues.
I welcome the delegation. I have same concerns about BVD but I would highlight the mastitis and cell count issue. The figures in the survey that was completed by Teagasc recently speak for themselves. If there are under 100,000 cells per millilitre, the usual net farm profit amounts to €31,000 compared to a net profit of €11,748 if the count is over 400,000. That is alarming. The target is to bring that to an average of 200,000 by 2020 but that is quite conservative. It is eight years away and quality milk production is crucial, particularly as we try to increase production. What part will Teagasc play? Cell count is a difficult issue to sort out, with culling at an aggressive rate one of the few solutions.
I share the concerns about BVD. The target cell count for mastitis was set out but what is the cell count at present if we want it to be 200,000 per millilitre by 2020? What are the ramifications of the count being higher than 200,000?
Does the group keep a watching brief on potential diseases that could threaten biosecurity and have an impact on the national herd? With the projected increase in the bovine population, both suckler and dairy, under Food Harvest 2020, is there a need for extra focus on diseases like Johne's and IBR against that background?
Mr. Joe O'Flaherty:
I will first address a number of questions related to the points members made on bovine viral diarrhea, BVD, and the retention of persistently infected animals on farms. It is correct that the figures available to us on the database, which is operated by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, show that the average level of retention on farms is 50%. I will ask Mr. Graham to comment on this shortly. It is also correct that this profile varies over time. For example, in the earlier weeks of the year, the level of deaths or the number of removals of animals from farms is higher, which means the percentage of retentions is lower. The figure tails off as one approaches the current period. Nonetheless, it is correct that the average retention rate for persistently infected animals identified since the start of the year is 50%. These animals are undoubtedly a biosecurity risk to the farms in question and potentially neighbouring farms. The primary risk, however, is in the trading of these animals. Once an animal has been identified as a persistently infected, it cannot move to another farm, either through marts or by means of a private sale. While that risk at least has been eliminated, some significant risks remain. For example, there is a risk that the animal will transmit the infection to cattle on a neighbouring farm, perhaps across a ditch. There is also a risk to the farmer because the disease is infectious and the organism can be transmitted on the clothing or person of the operator.
We only became aware of the overall figure in recent weeks through interrogation of the database. We have referred the issue to our technical working group which will produce an opinion on the potential impact of this on our programme timelines and objectives. We await the group's opinion with considerable interest.
On the question raised by members on the potential for compensation to address this matter, as chairman of the implementation group, it is safe to say I reflect the overall view of the group when I state we would welcome some degree of targeted compensation as a means of stimulating farmers who are inclined to retain infected animals to get rid of them promptly. I should balance that comment by noting that this disease primarily causes harm to the farmer who has the disease. As such, the benefits of controlling or eradicating the disease largely accrue to the farmer. There is, therefore, a balance to be struck between, on the one hand, the farmer taking control of an issue which damages his or her business and, on the other, the potential for the State to provide some sort of limited financial support which may encourage farmers to do the right thing. The farm organisations have put a proposal to the Minister in respect of providing a targeted support and I understand the Department is considering the proposal. I do not know the outcome of its deliberations at this point.
With the permission of the Chairman, I will ask him Mr. Graham, our expert on BVD and IBR, to comment.
Mr. David Graham:
I will discuss several of the issues that have been raised. A technical question was asked concerning the basis on which a calf whose mother is not persistently infected becomes persistently infected. The infection takes place prior to birth. If the unborn calf in the first 90 to 120 days of pregnancy becomes infected with the virus and is carried to term, it will be born persistently infected. If it is not persistently infected at birth, it will not become persistently infected subsequently. Evidence shows that the majority of PI calves are created where the mother has no previous immunity, comes in contact with another persistently infected animal and undergoes what is described as a transient infection. She then becomes infected and develops an immunity of her own and while she will fight off the infection, the virus passes to the unborn calf. Having said that, under the programme, where a virus positive calf is identified, the mother will be flagged as being at particular risk and will need to be examined. If one takes the prevalence figure for calves, which is between 0.6% and 0.7% , one finds that, depending on how one does the measurement, between 6% and 10% of the mothers are virus positive and persistently infected. The vast majority of infections of PI calves are created through a transient infection of the mother. For this reason, it is critical to identify and remove PI calves as soon as possible after birth because they are the source of the widespread transient infections. This is the point at which we can break the cycle.
On the impact of retaining persistently infected animals, part of the communications strategy in the programme has been to emphasise three key points. First, persistently infected calves typically do not thrive or survive and only a minority of them will reach breeding or slaughter age, depending on breed and sex. There is, therefore, a significant element of throwing good money after bad in cases where farmers invest in, feed and attempt to rear such animals. Second, these animals are a source of infection for other animals, particularly calves. They weaken the immune system of their comrades which become infected with a transient infection, resulting in more scars, cases of pneumonia, poor response to treatment and deaths in that group. Third, they are also a source of further persistent infections if they transmit the virus further to other pregnant, susceptible cattle. The biggest risk is certainly within the herd because, as Mr. O'Flaherty noted, taking measures to address the trade in such animals has a significant impact on eliminating the risk of spreading the disease outside the herd.
On the question of the economics, the €102 million figure is based on an aggregate of the dairy, suckler and finishing sectors when one models the costs that would arise in the absence of any intervention. The work done on this matter suggests that year-on-year losses arising from a decision to do nothing would amount to €102 million.
Mr. David Graham:
A specific question was asked on international trade. The issue that arises in this regard is that a number of countries have either completed or are running IBR control programmes which are officially recognised by the European Commission. Under the terms of this recognition, the countries in question are able to restrict entry of cattle from countries or regions which lack a parallel control programme. I am not in a position to provide in-depth figures on animal numbers and costs but the economics and technical working group will address this issue in more detail. I agree, however, that, as other countries progress IBR control, it will create the potential to increasingly restrict markets for export of live animals.
On the question as to the potential to screen and what we have done in this regard, it is important to note that BVD and IBR are very different diseases in terms of control. In the case of BVD, approximately 0.6% to 0.7% of calves are persistently infected and these are the carriers we need to identify and deal with. The means by which IBR persists in a population is much different. The means of control is, therefore, also different. The use of vaccine to prevent the transmission of a virus within herds from carrier animals is at the heart of IBR control programmes. If we were to take a snapshot of the population, I estimate that between 70% and 80% of herds have a number of carrier animals. However, testing to identify and remove these animals is not a feasible option given the numbers that are typically involved.
It is more about vaccination to lock virus into those carrier animals and to drive a decrease in prevalence and ultimately freedom by that route.
Ms Finola McCoy:
There were some questions about CellCheck regarding cell count and mastitis, and the consequence of having milk with a cell count of more than 200,000 cells per millilitre. The impact is in two areas. From a processor's point of view, as the cell count of the milk - the raw product - increases, the quality, quantity and value of the finished product decrease. As the cell count of the raw milk gets higher there is less that the processors can do with it. There is also the issue of certain high-value products or high-value markets that can only use milk of a specified cell count. Similarly some countries will only purchase product - not necessarily high-value product but any product at all - from milk of a specified level. From a processor point of view there are many potential impacts as the cell count increases.
The same is true from a farmer's perspective. As mentioned, the Teagasc research has identified the impact on net farm profit of having a herd average cell count of increasing levels. Essentially the lower the cell count, the better the return and the higher the profit. Most of that loss occurs where animals with a high cell count have infected quarters. If those quarters are infected, they cannot produce to their full potential and farmers are not maximising the full volume of potential production from the herd. That is an unseen cost that has been somewhat difficult to quantify in the past, but it probably accounts for the largest volume of it. One of the tools developed within CellCheck is a cost check calculator which allows farmers to use their own farm figures to identify what reaching a certain herd cell count target would equate to in terms of their profit.
What is our cell count nationally? It is a good question and difficult to answer because at this point the only figures we have to indicate that are the milk recording figures as a proxy. Traditionally, the bulk tank cell counts as measured by the co-operatives are not collated centrally. We are working on the matter and we hope we are close to having all of that information collated and analysed. However, at the moment all we can use are the milk recording figures, which account for approximately one third of the herds in the country.
Based on those figures an annual average is probably about 250,000 cells per millilitre. The current average, based on the most recent figures for the milk recording herds in the past ten days, is 198,000 cells per millilitre. If we break that down in terms of distribution, 52% of those herds have a cell count of under 200,000 cells per millilitre, 27% are between 200,000 and 300,000 cells per millilitre, 12% are between 300,000 and 400,000 cells per millilitre, and a tail of 9% have more than 400,000 cells per millilitre. That is not necessarily the milk being supplied to the co-operative, but milk may be being withheld to achieve the standard required by the co-operative. However, the reality is that it is still a loss that is happening on-farm related to the cell count.
Clearly, mastitis is not a new problem. I appreciate the dilemma Ms McCoy has with the figures. She can only work with what she has. However, based on her figures, almost half are above what she would ideally like them to be. After all the years and with all the knowledge we have about mastitis, why are we still at this level? It is not a new disease that farmers are struggling to understand. Mastitis has been around for some time.
Ms Finola McCoy:
Why is it a challenge and why are people battling? For a long time the previous EU regulatory limit of 400,000 cells per millilitre was used as the bar. That was the measure in the past. As we learn more and understand markets and the impact, there is much greater awareness of the financial cost of cell counts between 200,000 and 400,000 cells per millilitre. However, that awareness and understanding are relatively new. People have been managing at the level of between 200,000 and 400,000 cells per millilitre, but losing out perhaps without being aware of it. One of the principles of the CellCheck programme is to build awareness and demonstrate to farmers and processors that it is worth their while achieving 150,000 cells per millilitre rather than 350,000 cells per millilitre, and we can quantify the value of that.
Ms McCoy has said that farmers may not be aware of it. However, most co-operatives would penalise the farmer if the cell count exceeded a certain amount, for example, 200,000 or 250,000 cells per millilitre. It is not a new phenomenon that all of a sudden this magic figure has appeared out of the sky indicating that cell count is a problem. They would have been aware of it for some time. Obviously, it is up to each individual farmer to get his or her house in order in that regard. Obviously, a number of issues lead to the problem, including the machinery, the individuals looking after the cows and the cow itself. Some older cows will constantly be a problem. Should we consider culling at a higher rate to try to improve quality in future?
I asked a question and I accept Mr. Graham's point that he cannot give figures on IBR for other countries because they are not available yet. However, I asked about herd screening for Johne's disease. How many herds do we need as a sample?
Figures from the Teagasc report on BVD indicate that the eradication cost from the suckler herd would be €6 million but the benefit would be only €5 million. I ask for an explanation of those figures. If we do not lose animals, there should be an overall financial benefit.
Ms Finola McCoy:
On the awareness factor and the signals that come from the co-operatives, certainly there is change happening in that field. In the past, penalties generally came into play at a level of 400,000 cells per millilitre, but co-operatives are now starting to pay bonuses for quality, which is building awareness. However, that is relatively recent. It is not standard or consistent across the industry. It depends on the co-operative the farmers are supplying as to whether they will get a bonus payment. That is evolving over time. If we had had this discussion a year or two earlier, even fewer co-operatives would have been paying bonuses for quality milk. A culture change is happening, and to some degree farmers are playing catch-up in understanding what it means for them on farm.
There are times when culling is the only viable solution to address the problem of infected animals in the herd. However, one of the key messages of CellCheck, particularly within the farmer workshops that are being rolled out, is that it is about prevention and looking at the simple practices. Scientific research shows us the standards on farm at the moment, and there are large areas for improvement in some of the basics. It may be that as herds get larger, time becomes more precious and possibly less labour is available. Corners are being cut and they are not always the safest corners in terms of mastitis control. Prevention is essential and the Deputy is correct that there is no single solution or step that needs to be implemented.
It is also multidisciplinary and we need to involve all the service providers in educating and working with farmers. That is what we are doing through the training CellCheck provides which involves all disciplines. Those working for Teagasc, vets, private advisers, co-operative staff and milking machine technicians are all being trained together. They are building networks and teams locally to provide a more efficient and effective service for farmers.
On that matter, there is a demand by the industry and consumer for reduced antibiotic input, which will become mandatory across Europe. That is the other challenge that is very relevant to Animal Health Ireland. I ask Mr. Graham to respond to the question on Johne's disease.
Mr. David Graham:
Two studies on herd level prevalence have been carried out, one of which has been published and the other has been submitted for publication.
As the committee is probably aware, as compared with BVD, there are significant limitations to the tests that are available, albeit that there is quite a bit we can do with them. Within the confines of those limitations, between 20% and 30% of herds on the dairy side include test-positive animals. The percentage of such herds on the beef or suckler side is lower, at perhaps one third of that. That is a herd level figure. When one goes to the individual animal level figure, approximately 2% to 3% of animals tested overall are positive. Given the limitations of the tests in those herds, there are likely to be other undetected infected animals.
We have a reasonable indication of the magnitude of the problem. While those figures are far from ideal, we believe they show the industry in Ireland in a favourable light compared with many competitor countries. That is why, within the context of the programme that has been developed, one of the key objectives is to identify those herds that test negative and where we do not have evidence of infection in order that we can, over a period of time, build confidence that those herds are genuinely free and have those as a source of clean animals. Equally, the objective for herds that test positive is to put in place appropriate management practices to drive down that prevalence and, all being well in the fullness of time, enable them to become uninfected, although we talk about Johne's disease, as opposed to BVD, in control rather than eradication terms given the challenges of the disease.
Mr. David Graham:
Essentially, there are two types of test. We can look for evidence of antibody, which is typically done on blood but can also be done on a milk sample. That is looking for the immune marker the animal produces. Alternatively, we can use a direct test for the bug itself. The latter has its limitation in that, typically, we believe the majority of infections occur in the first weeks to months of life. Even though an animal is infected at that stage, it will not test positive, either in direct testing of dung for the organism itself or in a blood or milk test, until the animal is two, three or four years of age. There is that silent period where the animal is potentially infected and is increasingly contaminating the environment and possibly transmitting infection to its offspring, but only later on, through use of either of those tests, is it being flagged as infected. As one moves through those various phases for both of the tests, the performance characteristics and accuracy of the test will improve in terms of its ability to detect a genuinely infected animal.
If I may go back to SCC, I note the witnesses have their 2012-2014 strategy. As I should know but I do not, I ask their forgiveness for asking what they lay down in that strategy for that count. As it seems 2020 is a generous time by which to achieve this, I ask how confident they are they will achieve their target. What did they lay down to be achieved by 2014 and are they confident that by 2020 they will achieve their target? Given the legislation for antibiotics coming into the frame as well, it seems the period is on the lengthy side.
I wanted to ask whether the witnesses would make a recommendation to try to eradicate the disease. With brucellosis nearly eradicated in this country, should there be compulsory testing for two years for the disease to tie-in with a brucellosis or TB herd test? Would that help in identifying the disease and eradicating it from the herds? As Mr. Graham stated, there is an incubation period of three to four years and what one needs to test are mature breeding animals, which is what we have been testing for brucellosis for years. Would the group recommend that we should move to compulsory testing of it for two or three years?
Mr. David Graham:
Certainly, the more testing we do and the more extended the period over which we do it, the more confident we will be, either that a herd that is testing negative is free from infection or that we are dealing with an infected herd. A key point to make, drawing on the characteristics of Johne's disease, is that test and removal is only one element of a control programme, and as important, if not more important, is the on-farm risk assessment and management plan. Within the framework of the programme, there is a standardised pro forma template for an on-farm veterinary risk assessment, which goes through each of the production stages from calving up to weaning and, on a farm-by-farm basis, analyses the strengths and weaknesses of the various points within those production stages. After this, the practitioner and the farmer will agree what the top two or three points on which to focus. On one farm that may be addressing common calving pens and on another farm it might be the use of feeding of pool colostrum.
It would be a tailored management approach on each farm because, as has been highlighted, three or four years down the line we are picking up the damage that is done today in this year's calf crop. If they are infected now, it will be three or four years down the line before we pick them up. The challenge is through management, and effective management is turning the tap off so that we do not get those animals coming through three or four years down the line. Certainly, the more testing that is done, the better handle we will have on that.
Returning to the SCC issue, the timescale of 2020 is quite conservative. How do Ireland's figures compare with our European comrades in that regard? Are we above or below average or just average, or where do we fit in?
As regards the processors, do the witnesses have a timescale set for themselves whereby the processors may be able to feed them the information on what the different producers have, because they would have their own database of figures, or will the witnesses stick with the milk recording practice?
Mr. Joe O'Flaherty:
I will take the first part of that question and then pass back to my colleague, Ms McCoy.
In answer to Senator O'Keeffe's question on the strategy and what exactly we had set out, I suppose we could have set out a target for the period to 2014, but we felt that it would be foolish to do so in the absence of good information. As Ms McCoy has mentioned, we have cell count information from approximately one third of the herds in the country, which are the milk recorded herds. That may well be a biased sample. They may be the better herds. We do not quite know. We felt that the more prudent approach was to develop what Deputy Deering referred to, namely, a national database of all of the processors' supply and collate that in a single database, which we are doing. We hope to have completed in the next couple of months the figures for 2011 and 2012. That will give us a solid base from which we can measure progress and we can set out clearly in our future business plans how quickly we intend to move forward from that. This is a programme which is very much driven by market signals and if the market is demanding that the processor produces milk of a particular standard, that market signal will come back quickly to the farmer in the form of a price bonus, the exclusion of that milk or the application of a penalty if the milk exceeds a particular limit.
Progress can be made rapidly. We could have taken a guesstimate of a figure for the level of progress but we decided that what we would do was collate a robust national figure, and we intend to have that within the next couple of months. In that regard, we are getting good co-operation from all of the major dairy processors. I will leave the rest of the question with Ms McCoy.
Ms Finola McCoy:
In terms of how confident we can be that we can shift that national figure in respect of the second half of the population that is in excess 200,000 cells per millilitre, I would be confident that those farmers whose milk is between 200,000 and 400,000 cells per millilitre can and will improve once we build an understanding that having a high cell count is a form of mastitis.
Therefore, mastitis control is applicable to high cell counts, but these counts are not something that people can just manage or accept. There are simple practices that can deal with them, such as attention to detail. The focus to achieve lower targets has increased significantly over the past year or so and I am confident that farmers whose milk is between 200,000 cells per millilitre and 400,000 cells per millilitre can move to a lower bracket.
I have some concerns with regard to the farmers whose milk has over 400,000 cells per millilitre. When we look at research and raw data from co-ops in terms of bulk supply that has over 400,000 cells per millilitre, we see - this can also been seen in other countries - that the offending or non-compliant farmers are generally repeat offenders. They are farmers who are not engaged and do not seek support. They tolerate penalties and put up with them without realising there is a solution or that they could be in a better place. This is a more challenging group in terms of achieving a shift and behaviour change. The suggestion has been made that we look at the limitations on those farms in terms of infrastructure, herd management or herd quality. It may be the case that some of those farmers do not necessarily see themselves continuing in dairy production and there may be some degree of natural culling from that population.
In terms of helping the largest group of people and having the greatest impact on the national cell count, I am confident we can help them and they can make significant changes. Even with regard to the percentage whose milk has a cell count of over 400,000 cells per millilitre, this percentage is relatively small in terms of the volume of milk supplied. If we look at the number of herds, it is 9% or 10% of them, but in terms of the volume of production, these will not have the biggest impact on the national cell count.
With regard to how we compare with competitor nations, we are currently at a higher level. In the UK for example, its reported annual figures are between 180,000 and 190,000 cells per millilitre, while ours is in the mid 200,000 cells per millilitre. Scandinavian countries are lower still, from 120,000 to 140,000 cells per millilitre.
Mr. Mike Magan:
I hope my colleagues have answered the questions asked adequately. I would like to deal with the Chairman's questions. On the question of other diseases, we have finite resources so our capacity to deal with other diseases is limited. However, we give general and targeted advice on areas such as parasite control and calf rearing and care. We have found there has been a positive uptake of such projects. With regard to Food Harvest 2020, the Chairman is correct to say that we need to tackle these issues before we have substantial growth in the national herd. This is a very good time to tackle some of the issues and when it comes to expanding the national herd, this will have a positive impact, particularly if we have tackled issues like Johne's disease, BVD, mastitis and, hopefully, IBR.
As mentioned, behavioural change is slow. We are working on the science of behavioural change, an interesting dimension. This is not something one normally hears farmers discuss, but it is a fascinating area. With regard to the Chairman's comment on antibiotic use and antimicrobial resistance, this is very pertinent, because as we lower the level of disease in the national herd, we will lower the use of antibiotics and put the industry in a better place. Hopefully, we can tackle the issue of antimicrobial resistance issue as it is an important issue for the human population. This will be a positive outcome of what we are doing.
On the question of resources, we were set up on the basis that we would be 50% funded by the State after we raised the other 50% from the industry. The industry has been good up to now and I hope it will continue to be so. However, we operate under a delicate funding model. Hopefully, we will have an in-depth discussion at some stage in the future about how we can continue to fund what is an important, national group that has huge implications for the national herd. Whether we can continue with the current funding model deserves some debate. Perhaps that is not an issue for today, but it is one that should be raised at some stage.
Thank you. That is a very relevant comment, because much of the expert advice that is given through technical working groups is provided free by interested parties whose background is employment or involvement with someone who supports Animal Health Ireland. Other agencies doing fine work are funded fully and everything they do is a cost on the State. It is important that we keep this issue on the agenda, particularly since the industry is so important and faces such challenges. One of the reasons we invited Animal Health Ireland to this committee was to give it the opportunity to explain the work it does in this forum. In the context of the current situation, animal health and the status of the national herd are ever more important. Bio-security issues and new challenges arise continually and we need business plans to cope with new diseases we knew nothing about ten years ago. We have seen the plans for the four mentioned here, but unfortunately there may be more. That is the problem. We must look to the potential damage their growth could do to the ambition outlined in Food Harvest 2020.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions, which have been useful to the committee. Hopefully, we will soon have a conclusion to our CAP negotiations and will have Food Harvest 2020 implementation groups in place for the dairy and beef sectors with agreed targets and deadlines.