Dairy cows

The dairy industry is weighing a new plan to breed TB-resistant cows

Farmers may be able to breed TB-resistant cows in a groundbreaking new project developed for the dairy industry.

Over the next 18 months, scientists will rank bulls for their resistance to Bovine TB (BTB) – a disease that can devastate dairy cow herds and has resulted in the government’s trial badger cull, currently taking place in Somerset and Gloucestershire.

DairyCo – which is funding the project – said it expects to select bulls with resistant genes by 2015, with their daughters entering the milking herd in 2018 at the earliest.

It said the project was a welcome development for the industry, although it cautioned that it would result in just “one useful weapon in the armoury” to tackle BTB, rather than a complete solution.

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“The good news is we will be able to identify those animals carrying a degree of resistance; however, it’s important to recognise that as yet, we have no way of knowing how many there will be come the end of the project or whether these will be animals the farmer wants to breed from because of other criteria he or she is aiming for,” said DairyCo’s head of genetics Marco Winters.

Dairy farmers already considered genetic traits, including enhanced fertility, improved fitness, longer lifespan as well as milk yield and quality, when selecting bulls from which to breed dairy cows, added Professor Georgios Banos, who is leading the project at Scotland’s Rural College.

“Adding this new trait into the mix will further help their overall progress in achieving a profitable and sustainable outcome from their breeding programme.

“Although it’s early days, it’s particularly good news for farmers in regions where BTB is most common,” he added. 

A BTB badger vaccine is available but Defra claims there are practical difficulties with it, which mean it is not a realistic option for tackling BTB in the short term.

There is currently no licensed cattle vaccination, although Defra is funding the development of a potential BTB vaccination.

Approximately 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in order to control TB last year, according to Defra.

The government estimates that if BTB is not dealt with, the cost to the taxpayer will top £1bn over the next 10 years.