Record input costs combined with record prices for milk, mean that a devastating outbreak of bovine TB could not have happened at a worse time for Portglenone dairy farmers, Mervyn and James Kelso.

The Kelsos are resilient people and are keen to look to the future and focus again on managing their herd of cows. However, their story is a reminder that losing a breeding herd to TB has a lasting financial and emotional impact.

Having had a clear test in April 2021, the farm was due to test again in November 2021. The evening before the test was read, James spotted a number of cows with lumps in the parlour.

“It came from nowhere. I stood there wondering what is going on. There were lumps the size of your fist. I thought there might be 20 affected,” he recalls.

But in fact, over half the herd were classed as reactors, and at a subsequent test in January 2022 another batch of reactors were found. It left James and Mervyn with just 60 to 70 cows going through the parlour, well below half of what was being milked in early November 2021.

Six weeks later, the decision was taken by DAERA to take the remainder of the milking herd.

“We lost everything outside of calves and a few maiden heifers. By 22 March everything else was gone. The sheds were empty, and we were not allowed to bring in again for 120 days,” says James.

During that six-week period James had been using sexed semen on heifers and given the amount of time that had elapsed, had expected to retain these animals.

“We were told that our case had been discussed at a meeting and the cattle would be taken. There was no discussion with us. To be fair, the local DAERA vets who came to the farm were sympathetic to what had happened to us, but the wider Department just felt distant from the farmer,” says James.

Next up was a test in April 2022 which was clear. However, the Department insisted that a blood test was also done, and this yielded 11 positives. None of these animals had lesions at slaughter, and given the blood test does tend to give false positives, Mervyn and James do not want it imposed on them again.


They also make valid arguments around how DAERA communicates with farmers and private vets.

“We have since been told that six months prior to our outbreak a road kill badger close to here had come back positive for TB. Surely, the local farming community should have been alerted at the time to watch your biosecurity – even if it was just a WhatApp message,” says James.


He believes that an opportunity has been missed in Tier 1 and Tier 2 grant schemes to encourage improved biosecurity on farms, and describes the attempt to eradicate TB in NI over the last 40 years as “pretty shameful”.

Included within that is the continued failure to tackle TB in wildlife, despite the science showing that badgers are a factor in the spread of disease between farms.

“There is just no perception among the general public of what farmers have to suffer.

“In NI, we have changed nothing. That £50m cost per year for TB should be going to the NHS.

“There are farmers around here currently milking cows that won’t be milking those cows in a year’s time thanks to TB.

“None of us know who will be next,” says James.

Lost income from empty sheds

Looking back over the last 15 months, Mervyn and James are clear that the hardest part wasn’t the financial hit, but coming out each morning to empty sheds.

“The place just felt lifeless. It is a form of mental anguish,” says James.

For Mervyn, who has spent his career in dairy farming, the herd was his life’s work.

“Farming is a tough existence as it is. I believe if money can fix something, it isn’t a problem at all. But TB is an issue that doesn’t simply stay in the yard – it comes into the house as well,” he says.

However, bills must still be paid, and when you intend starting up again, those bills are more significant than if you were retiring from farming.

Timing also worked against Mervyn and James, with costs shooting up in 2022.

While most dairy farmers were able to cover these costs thanks to high milk prices, these prices are irrelevant if you have no milk to sell.

“You don’t get compensated for the loss of income. We missed out on a colossal amount of sales,” says James.

He points out that at the time his first reactors were valued, milk was around 30p/l, and by the time he was able to buy-in stock, cows in-milk were probably up £1,000 per head.

In addition, high milk prices meant farmers did not want to sell their best cows.

“There was no milk cheque until three months ago. We are gradually getting going again.”

A shift to the Danish Red

The one silver lining for Mervyn and James is that it has given them the opportunity to re-evaluate breeding on the farm.

Having explored various options, they eventually decided to import some Danish Red cattle from Denmark, attracted mainly by traits such as good longevity and udder health. There also remains a nucleus of Holstein and Montbeliarde cows on the farm.

But, ultimately, with mainly first calvers going through the parlour it will take Mervyn and James three to four years to get back to where they were in milk output.

“You definitely miss those third calvers – they know the routine, they are settled in. We have got to move on and focus on our breeding stock again. But of course, there is always that lingering worry this could all happen again,” says James.