31 Jul 2017

Test results due from infected cattle in Canterbury

7:42 am on 31 July 2017

Farmers in South Canterbury are nervously awaiting test results after a cattle disease outbreak was detected last week.

The disease, Mycoplasma bovis, has been found for the first time in New Zealand and at this stage is contained to one of the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group farms on Barnetts Road, near Morven.

Cows on the farm infected with mycoplasma bovis.

Cows on the farm infected with mycoplasma bovis. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Many farmers are worried about the potential threat of the disease to the dairy and beef sectors because it causes mastitis, pneumonia, abortions and lameness, and can result in the deaths of cows and calves.

Rachel McFarlane farms over the fence from one of the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group farms.

Calving was in full swing and now there was the added pressure of worrying that their cows and calves could also be infected, she said.

"We all just mostly have been waiting to find out what is going on... It's the not knowing that is the hard part. Once we've found out whether we've got it or not - then we can move forward."

Cattle can carry Mycolplasma bovis without showing any symptoms, and some testing can work while others may not.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) was widening its investigation and testing the milk from about 50 farms closest to the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group farms, including the McFarlanes.

"We certainly can't sell any bull calves at the moment, I don't think anyone would want them.

"Until we get the tests back and know what's going on, we don't know what to tackle because we don't have a clue."

Testing is complicated because of the nature of Mycoplasma bovis, and MPI said it hoped tests would be complete by the end of the week.

A calf on the Macfarlane's farm.

A calf on the Macfarlane's farm. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Disease symptoms started in March

Aad and Wilma Van Leeuwen own 16 farms in South Canterbury and North Otago with a total of over 12,000 dairy cows.

The first symptoms in the infected cows started back in March with pneumonia and lameness, and by late May Ms Van Leeuwen said they had mastitis, which was getting worse.

"Nothing would fix it and the vets were trying to culture it but they couldn't... So they were pulling their hair out and then started talking to MPI and brought MPI in and they found this bovis bug."

The family was first shocked and then worried about what would happen next. Aad and Wilma van Leeuwen said the infected farm had the least stock movement out of all their farms.

"This herd has been a closed herd within the operation itself for quite a few years, none of these animals have gone anywhere else."

By the end of today the 150 infected cows from a herd of 1000 will be sent to the freezing works.

With all 16 farms in 'lock down' from MPI and restrictions in place, Mr van Leeuwen said it had been hard work.

"There's a lot of bureaucratic work to be done, a lot of paperwork. We can't just shift stock on or off anymore, we can't bring in any cows we want to purchase. Shifting cows from run off blocks we have to get permits... So there's time delays. Everything has to be approved from the top level."

"It's a complicated situation."

Chris Rodwell outside the Oamaru plunket rooms, where MPI have been operating.

Chris Rodwell outside the Oamaru plunket rooms, where MPI have been operating. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Ministry for Primary Industries regional controller Chris Rodwell said there was little chance that MPI would determine how the disease got into New Zealand.

At this stage they were still tracking stock movements from the 16 different farms.

"It's a significant worry that this particular disease, the way it moves around, there is always the chance that we're dealing with other infections," he said.

"We're going to give it a red-hot go to try to contain this so if it's containable, we'll contain it. We'll eradicate it if it's eradicable."

It was a complicated situation, Dr Rodwell said.

"We've got multiple farms in a large cluster separated by geographical distance so it's always going to be challenging."

Because animals can carry the disease and not have symptoms, it was even more difficult to detect than other diseases, he said.

"You've got the chance that this has been moving around for a period of weeks or months undetected. The work goes into unravelling the story - working out where things have moved, when they moved, where they've gone to."

Dr Rodwell said there had been movement of the infected herd, but he couldn't give specifics.

"These farms are interconnected so there has been lots of movement between different farms. There is every chance we've had this particular bug move between farms, when we get the test results we'll know more."

Alan Gisbon farms in the same district as the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group and feared the situation would get worse.

"I think we would be naive to think it's contained on one farm, the fact it may have been there since March... It may easily be somewhere else as well - it just hasn't been picked up yet."

Mr Gibson said people wanted quick and accurate information from MPI.

"As farmers we need to know where we're going and how to protect ourselves against possible infection."

MPI said it was planning another community meeting for next week.

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