In Northern Ireland (NI), compulsory testing for bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD) was introduced in 2016 following a three-year voluntary testing phase.
Since BVD testing became a legal requirement for all calves born after 1 March 2016 on NI suckler and dairy herds, there has been steady progress in eradicating the disease.
However, during 2020, the rate of progress has increased significantly as a direct consequence of more stringent deterrents for non-compliant farmers.
According to Animal Health & Welfare NI (AHWNI), the body overseeing the eradication programme north of the border, just 81 herds accounted for 118 persistently infected (PI) cattle on farm as of 1 December. At the outset of the year, there were 381 PI cattle being retained across 263 herds.
A key factor in the 67% drop in herds holding PI cattle has been the introduction of a non-conformance status under the NI Farm Quality Assurance Scheme (FQAS).
Under the FQAS ruling change, herds are deemed non-compliant if PI animals are held on farm for longer than five weeks after a positive test result.
While PI animals cannot be sold live or direct to factories, the suspension of FQAS status financially disadvantages non-PI animals being sold.
To maintain the current rate of progress, industry stakeholders are calling on government officials to go one step further and impose movement restrictions on all animals in non-compliant herds.
At the end of the first year of compulsory testing in March 2017, there were 18,091 herds participating in the scheme.
This broke down to 19% dairy, 52% suckler and 29% dual-purpose herds. Just 0.68%, or 3,500, of animals sampled in the first scheme year were confirmed as PI.
By autumn 2018, there were 19,468 herds participating in the scheme, with positive tests of PI animals falling to 0.49% of animals sampled.
Unlike the BVD eradication scheme in the Republic of Ireland, there is currently no compensation available to herd owners in Northern Ireland for removing PI animals.
This has always been a barrier to get farmers culling PI calves as soon as a positive test result has been confirmed.
A compensation initiative was offered in February 2017 and ran until September of the same year. Financial assistance had a positive effect, with more farmers culling PI animals thanks to compensation rates set at £160 (€177) for beef calves, £140 (€156) for dairy heifers and £50 (€56) for dairy bull calves.
Tissue tagging of newborn calves remains the most common, and most practical option, for BVD testing in Northern Ireland.
Tags are supplied by multiple distributors, with the cost of the lab test included in the purchase price of each tag set.
The cost of tag sets varies depending on the manufacturer and quantity purchased. But for fair comparison, price quotes were obtained from leading distributors for a minimum order of 50 tags.
Allflex tags were priced around the £4.30 (€4.77) mark, excluding VAT, with further discounts to be had on larger orders and replacement tags.
Caisley tags were priced around the £4.90 mark (€5.44), excluding VAT. The manufacturer claims a 99% retention rate, reducing the need for replacement tags which cost in the region of £3.25 (€3.61) ex-VAT.
All Caisley tags are supplied through Countryside Services in Northern Ireland, which offers an in-house testing service, meaning farmers can avoid postal fees and problems by manually delivering BVD samples.
Shearwell tags are priced around the £5 mark (€5.55), with Quick Tags costing close to £4.60/kg ex-VAT (€5.11).