Scientists are undertaking genetic profiling of thousands of cows as part of efforts to breed cattle herds which are more resistant to tuberculosis.
The disease is a major problem for dairy and beef farmers in some parts of the country, and efforts to curb TB in cattle include the controversial badger cull, as the wild animals can spread infection to livestock on farms.
Experts say that improving predictions for which cattle are more naturally resistant to TB will help farmers breed animals which are less likely to catch and pass on the disease.
The mass-profiling project by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), partnering with Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), is one of two schemes by the organisations on genetic resistance to TB in cattle.
It builds on recent AHDB research which identified significant genetic variations between resistant and non-resistant individual animals.
Testing large numbers of animals will improve the accuracy of “genomic prediction” measures being developed to help farmers choose which cattle to breed and keep on the basis of TB resistance.
Although no cattle have complete resistance to TB, and a large proportion of the problem will remain from infection through the environment, breeding better inherited resistance into herds could make a “significant contribution”, Marco Winters, head of animal genetics for AHDB Dairy, said.
“If you think about humans, some people regularly get the flu and others go through the winter and never get problems. You see the same thing with cattle.
“There’s a genetic element, and we know from other traits with a similar level of heritability, it can make an improvement.
“We are breeding a better inherited resistance into the national dairy herd.”
He added: “It’s part of the solution, it certainly isn’t the only solution, because it’s not a complete resistance we can breed in.”
But as TB is such a “devastating disease”, anything that farmers can do to improve the situation would have an impact, and genetics was one such tool, he said.
If they are less likely to catch TB, the cattle are also less likely to pass it on, boosting the resilience of the herd as a whole and allowing it to clear the disease more quickly if they do get it, he said.
A second project by AHDB and SRUC will focus specifically on beef cattle, which is more complicated than for dairy herds as there are more different breeds, but could deliver huge savings for livestock breeders, the experts said.
The dairy project is supported with £360,000 funding from Innovate UK and the beef industry scheme is being co-funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).