17 Jun 2018

Insight: The blight of Mycoplasma bovis

From Insight, 8:10 am on 17 June 2018

The government has entered the fight against Mycoplasma bovis all guns blazing with a promise to spend almost one billion dollars trying to eradicate the cattle disease. Whether it will succeed remains uncertain.

Organic Jersey heifer on a Rongotea farm.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

While a technical advisory group said eradication was "technically feasible", its decision was hardly unanimous.

The group of mostly overseas experts brought together by the government came out six to four in favour of the move.

Its chair, Scott McDougall, told Insight the dissenting opinion was based on the uncertainty surrounding just how many cows could be infected.

"If there were a substantially larger number of...unrecorded movements, particularly from farms that are now known to be infected places...there could be more farms that are infected that we just don't know about yet.

"And if that turned in to hundreds then the concern would be that just logistically the MPI operations team just couldn't keep up," said Dr McDougall.

Otago farm

Otago farm Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

At the time of publishing, a further two North Island farms had been declared infected properties bringing the current number to 38.   

A better picture of how many farms are infected won't be available until the national milk survey is carried out in the spring when MPI will find out just how much of a mountain it has to climb to rid the country of the disease.

Dr McDougall said when it came to infected calves, many of those were a number of years away from producing milk and could still be flying under the radar as far as milk testing was concerned.

"And that's why as a TAG (Technical Advisory Group) we've been very clear it's going to take several years in fact for the full extent of the disease spread to be really understood."

FOR WATER TAX story - Generic cow

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

For Keith Woodford, a former agribusiness professor and agricultural consultant, doubt still hangs over MPI's assertions that the disease has been in the country since late 2015.

He pointed to reports of unusually high numbers of calf deaths as early as 2014 on the Southland farm thought to have had the disease first.

"If it was here in 2014/2015, that greatly complicates the task of eradication."

In the meantime, farmers are hunkering down for the winter and doing everything they can to protect their herds.

Room crowded with people looking to front.

Cheviot M Bovis meeting between MPI and local farmers. Photo: RNz / Logan Church

Earlier this month, an MPI organised meeting at the local pub in Cheviot attracted 200 farmers from across North Canterbury - it was standing room only despite a howling southerly outside.

Anybody stumbling across this scene might mistake this group of farmers, most with a beer in hand and busy in conversation with friends, as being here for a social event.

But start talking to them about Mycoplasma bovis and the smile quickly disappears from their faces as they describe the steps they are taking to prevent getting a knock on the door from an MPI inspector telling them they are a farm of interest.

Dirk van Reenen told the meeting it took five months from the time testing first started to when his neighbour's property was declared infected and he was finally told about it.

A disinfection point sign on a farm under restricted movement notice due to Mycoplasma Bovis.

A disinfection point sign on a farm under restricted movement notice due to Mycoplasma Bovis. Photo: RNZ Maja Burry

If he had known sooner he would have taken steps to protect his own herd.

"It just beggars belief that MPI don't have the power to inform neighbours or farmers of what's going on and when we have a foot and mouth outbreak, you might as well close the show down because you'd have no show of controlling it."

A short time later the room goes silent as the owner of the infected farm, the first and so far the only one in North Canterbury, stands to give his version of events.

Talking to Insight afterwards, Richard Maxwell said as somebody born and raised in Cheviot it was no big deal and that he had a clear conscience.

"I'm reasonably thick skinned and I wouldn't have done anything differently. It has been a difficult time for my wife, I think she's found it very very hard."

MPI's need to preserve the privacy of infected farmers is causing uncertainty in Southland as well.

The spokesperson for the Mycoplasma bovis action group, Bevan Collie, said farmers sending herds away for winter grazing were on edge.

"They know there are people around them that are being tested but they don't know who or where and in some cases it's right next door."

Like farmers around the country, they were having to find new ways to farm.

"There will be some dairy farmers which, by the time those replacements go back in to the herd, they've probably been on six different farms and so people who are in that situation will be sitting down and saying 'well hang on this is a huge risk for my business'."

He believed eradicating the disease was crucial.

"The freedom that we all have as farmers will change dramatically if we don't. We've got to stop it."

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MPI misled farmers -Privacy Commissioner

Farmers not co-operating on M Bovis - MPI