Province-wide bulk tank samples to track disease prevalence

Research project could help with individual farm and provincial disease management

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Ontario bulk tank samples will be screened for diseases in a broad look aimed at determining disease prevalence in Ontario herds.

The provincial government recently announced financial support for the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DF)-led effort to establish annual testing of bulk tank samples for a roster of infectious diseases.

Why it matters: Some diseases have been difficult to eradicate, such as Johne’s disease and knowing provincial prevalence can help better understand them.

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Potential diseases to be included in the project, according to lead researcher Dr. David Kelton of the University of Guelph’s Department of Population Medicine, include Johne’s Disease, Bovine Leukosis, and Salmonella Dublin.

Kelton is DFO Dairy Cattle Health Research Chair, and serves in an ex officio role on the commodity organization’s research and development committee.

DFO has earmarked $300,000 to the research project while an additional $167,000 will come through the Ontario Agri-Food Alliance.

The alliance is a research funding partnership between University of Guelph and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

The information used by researchers will be analyzed in aggregate with no identifiers by farm. Farmers will, however, have to access to their individual farm data either directly or behind their DFO password-protected farm account, says Kelton.

Kelton says the work has the potential to give dairy producers and herd veterinarians “an annual snapshot of which diseases are/are not present on their farm, to guide discussions and planning for how to control these diseases.”

Set to get underway this September, the project will eventually see analyses taken of bulk tank milk samples from all Ontario dairy farms for a set of yet-to-be-specified diseases. Kelton says this methodology follows research undertaken between 2010-13, specific to Johne’s, when one-time-only bulk tank testing was used to estimate the prevalence of the disease in the province’s dairy sector.

“The project itself will not involve farm visits, just access to the bulk tank milk samples routinely collected when milk is picked up,” Kelton explained.

Step one, though, is to reach out to producers, veterinarians and other stakeholders to determine which diseases should be highlighted.

The research portion is scheduled to run two years, but the aim is to create a system of annual bulk tank testing for the suite of diseases, to continue into the future in support of the proAction animal welfare and food safety program.

There’s already a control program for Johne’s based on bulk tank testing in the Netherlands, and one for Salmonella Dublin in Denmark. “As part of this project, we are starting a jurisdictional scan to find other programs based on bulk tank milk testing,” Kelton reported. “We certainly hope to learn from them and incorporate the best of what others are doing as we develop ours.”

He noted that a PhD student working with one of his Department of Population Studies colleagues, Dr. Amy Greer, is working towards a “baseline disease spread model” for Ontario dairy farms.

In addition to providing information about the prevalence of the diseases in the province, it’s hoped that the test results from the bulk tank surveillance project can be put into the student’s model “to allow us to answer critical questions about disease spread among Ontario dairy farms.”

Key to the success, he says, will be continued cooperation between DFO, University of Guelph, OMAFRA, and milk recording organization Lactanet. He added, however, that “all parties are committed to the success of the project, so we are very optimistic that this will move forward without any significant problems.”

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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