18 Jun 2018

North Otago calves confirmed to have had M bovis

From Checkpoint, 6:14 pm on 18 June 2018

A North Otago farmer who lost her farm after having to deal with a mystery illness has had it confirmed her calves that year had Mycoplasma bovis.

Susan McEwan's story featured on RNZ's Checkpoint and Insight programmes.

At that stage she suspected the reason she lost 600 of the 3000 animals she was raising to arthritis and pneumonia, was due to Mycoplasma bovis, but had no way to prove it.

Since then she had been contacted by the Ministry for Primary Industries and had discovered calves from that year were sent to a farm which had just been declared to be an infected property.

In fact 95 percent of the now 2-year-old bulls sent there from her place in 2016 were found to be infected with the disease.  

Ms McEwan said she poured her heart and soul into her calf rearing operation for five years but after losing an estimated $100,000 in 2016 due to the sheer number of calves that fell ill, she ended up having to sell it.

She was kept on as the farm manager through last year but in May she was let go and was now making ends meet taking cleaning jobs around Palmerston.

But for somebody with a deep knowledge of calves and a passion for rearing them, the financial hit was nothing compared to the hit her reputation had taken.

She said losing so many calves left her doubting her own abilities.

The news late last week that the high death rates were not down to anything she was doing wrong and were instead the fault of Mycoplasma bovis, was massive.

She had been overwhelmed with the number of farmers who had been in touch with her since her story aired.

"The interview we did, I don't think viral's the word, but it's been posted everywhere over Facebook and I've had a lot of messages from people all over the country. Lots of friends and support but also lots of farmers that I've never heard of and never met," Ms McEwan said.

Like all of the cattle that had so far tested positive for this disease, the calves from Susan's place originally came from the Southland farm belonging to Alfons Zeestraten, a property that is thought to have had it since late 2015.

When they left Susan's place in 2016, Mycoplasma bovis had yet to be identified in New Zealand.

However, she still felt bad that calves from her operation had ended up infecting another farmer's stock.

She was keen to use her new profile to share her experiences with others who were only now going through what she did two years ago.

She wanted farmers to keep a close watch on calves with any unusual symptoms that could not be cured through the normal avenues.

"There were lots of basic things like calves that had ear infections from their tags that when we removed tags and treated them with penicillin they didn't get better. We had a huge amount of pink eye that year, ring worm that year, neck abscesses from vaccines which I've never seen like it and jaw abscesses, that when we lanced them and we treated them they still didn't get better," Ms McEwan said.
"Mycoplasma bovis affects their immunity so I believe all of these things are because they are struggling to keep going."  
She said her case showed the disease was not just a problem for dairy farmers and had caused a lot of heartache for beef farmers as well.

"As much as I am completely broken by being out of the calf rearing industry, I don't know if I would want to be rearing large numbers of calves when this [Mycoplasma bovis] is just starting in New Zealand," Ms McEwan said.

"I don't know how we can guarantee that you're getting calves from farms that aren't infected. This is only the tip of the iceberg and we still don't know how far it's gone."

However, she was still keen to get back in to the business in some form.

"I've been offered a few jobs calf rearing in the last week since the story went to air and I would definitely rear calves again. That is what I want to do, that's what I'm designed to do. But I'm pleased I'm not doing it of my own accord."

A spokesperson for the grazing company Ms McEwan was rearing the calves for, GrazCare, said while 216 calves were sent from her place to the farm which had subsequently been declared to be an infected property, it was not aware if any of its calves had tested positive for Mycoplasma bovis.

The spokesperson declined to be interviewed.

As a part owner of the now two-year-old bulls, GrazCare will be compensated by MPI once they are culled.

However, Ms McEwan would not receive a cent from MPI for her losses in 2016 because she only owned the land they were grazed on.

MPI said it could not comment on individual cases.