John Graham farms with his father, Henry, in Drumfinn, Riverstown, Co Sligo. He should be milking 110 mostly Holstein Friesian cows this year, but instead he is milking 78 as a result of being locked up with TB.

He told the Irish Farmers Journal this week that he had sucklers too and, including milking cows, had 170 head in all. He sold the majority of his sucklers last November and now keeps three.

Graham said the TB issues started on his farm last September.

“I had cattle in three separate locations: milkers, maidens and in-calf heifers. I lost six in the TB test, two from each group. It was strange because the three batches were miles from each other – we’re very fragmented here.

“I got locked up bad. In the next blood test, I lost another four. In the next TB test I lost another two, another blood test and six more were gone. I had upwards of nine tests,” he said, losing 24 cows and calves in all.

This week, another five animals went down with TB; two in-calf heifers and three cows.

Graham puts the reason for the TB outbreak down to the new road – the N4. “I can be nearly certain it’s the new road and that it caused upheaval of the badgers.

“My neighbour lost all his stock and there’s another five or six affected. There’s 50 to 60 cattle gone with TB in the last year here.

“The Department has caught badgers locally and they’ve tested positive for TB. I’ve lost 24 cows and calves, 21 of them milking cows that I should be milking this year. I’m losing €1,500/head on what they would have produced.

“I still have costs. Land, silage and buildings still have to be paid for. The only thing I’m saving is meal in front of their heads. I’ve lost a lot of income, over €30,000, and I didn’t get the income supplement until March and they didn’t deem in-calf heifers as qualifying for that – what is the difference between an in-calf heifer and a dry cow? They would both have been yielding in the restricted period.”

The Sligo farmer said that the earliest he is likely to go clear now is October.

“You’re down for a lot longer than you think. I can’t all of a sudden regain the cows I’ve lost,” he said.

He said it was a difficult decision to sell the sucklers last year but that he had no choice.

“They’re sold, gone, out of the herd. I used the shed space for animals from the dairy herd.”

As he is locked up, he has had to retain all calves that were born this spring on the farm, instead of selling them like he usually would. “All I can see are black calves everywhere. The expense is buying equipment, gates, feeders.

“When I came home to the farm, the plan was to build up the herd to have high EBIs. I could have got crazy money this year for those calves, but I couldn’t sell them.

“I had a plan; that’s totally thrown out the window. I was supposed to be milking 110 to 120 cows this year. I’m not.”

Dairy farmer John Graham with a dead badger, near his farm in Riverstown, Co Sligo. \ James Connolly

Solutions: putting more focus on science

Graham said that there needs to be more focus on science when it comes to TB and that COVID-19 has opened up a lot of people’s eyes as to how a disease can be controlled.

“If I go to rent land, I don’t know if TB is in that area. The Department of Agriculture needs to see if TB is moving and to act,” he said, suggesting that certain areas could be “locked down” until the area is clear of TB.

“We need to be clear to get rid of this goddamn disease. No one likes TB testing, but if there is an endgame it would be worth it and, at the moment, I’m not seeing one. That’s not pub talk. It’s core to this business at this stage.

“We have vaccines and got rid of TB in humans. What’s going wrong? I don’t have the answers, I’m not an epidemiologist but things are likely to get worse before they get better.

“I’ve gone through a horrible spring. I’ve gone through hell and I’ve had to let land go that I wanted – all on top of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

TB resistance

The ICBF has done great work on TB resistance, Graham said, and he wants more research carried out into it. “I want to be able to buy heifers that are TB-resistant. While we’ve been very lucky with any heifers we’ve bought, it’s crazy for me to buy heifers that are not TB-resistant. They’re unknown.”

Dosing and drying cows off has been another issue Graham encountered due to TB this year.

“When you’re due the TB test, you’re not allowed to treat a couple of weeks before it due to the withdrawal period.

“With testing every two months, all of sudden we’re all over the shop.

“We can’t dry off cows so many weeks before the test. Then it comes to drying off after the test but you have a blood test coming up.

“You end up losing quarters. You can plan, yes, but something else might end up happening.

“If we didn’t have my plan, I don’t know where we’d be now.”