The government's response to the 2017 Mycoplasma bovis outbreak was poorly managed and inflicted significant and lasting trauma on farmers whose stock was culled, a University of Otago study has found.
M bovis was first detected in New Zealand in 2017, after a large number of cattle on a South Canterbury dairy herd began displaying symptoms of a novel disease. In May 2018, the government and industry bodies made the decision to attempt a world-first eradication of M.bovis.
Figures from Ministry for Primary Industries' (MPI) eradication programme show as of 17 June this year, 266 farms have tested positive for the disease and more than 171,000 cattle have been culled.
Researchers from Otago University's department of general practice and rural health have just completed a two-year study on the emotional, social and psychological impacts of M.bovis on Southern farmers and farming communities.
Study lead Dr Fiona Doolan-Noble said a dominant theme of the research was the intrusive, impractical and inhumane nature of MPI's programme in which local knowledge, expertise and pragmatism were ignored in favour of inefficient bureaucratic processes.
Extensive interviews with affected farmers in Southland and Otago revealed the enduring emotional cost of a "badly planned and poorly executed process", leaving farming families feeling isolated, bewildered, and powerless.
Others in the rural community, such as local veterinarians, were left feeling their expertise was undervalued and their potential to positively contribute to the management of the outbreak disregarded, she said.
"These vets were really willing and wanting to work with MPI and yet some of them talk about being completely cut out of the loop ... they also had to bare witness to a lot of human and animal suffering."
Farmers describe experiences
Doolan-Noble said during the research, farmers described the damage to their sense of identity and the forced separation from typical farming practices and seasonal rhythms as they transition into an incursion management process overseen by what the study described as an ill-prepared government agency.
One dairy farmer described how a slaughter team arrived early and started killing cows while he was still in the milking shed.
"So [MPI] decided to start killing them on the farm. And I said, 'Look, that's a bit rough'. But they said, 'No, that's what's going to happen'.
"So, this truck arrives, from this pet food outfit ... this guy pulls up and just shoots 10 of them, in the yard. Cuts their throats... I come [out] there, there was hysterics, there were staff crying. I just said to the guy: 'You can't do this. This is just heartless'."
Another farmer said he had quit the land because of the impact of the elimination programme. He could not remember the birth of a child because of the stress at the time.
A family of beef farmers who experienced a total cull told researchers they were impacted by slow MPI decision making, resulting in their farm over-wintering too many cattle during a very wet season.
"The animal welfare of the animals was not good at all... Because they were on very small pads in mud up to their haunches… we had two or three pass away on our pad because the conditions were so rough," they said.
The study found when farmers were placed under restricted movement controls, known as Notices of Direction, farming families effectively lost control of the running of their farm while remaining responsible for the welfare of their remaining stock.
"It says in the notice, in the NoD [biosecurity notice] that we are responsible for everything on the property. So, we're responsible for the health and wellbeing of all the animals on the property, even though there's people making decisions for us," one farmer said.
The situation was compounded by poor communication, lack of clarity about animal testing regimes, delays in providing results, indecision regarding stock management, authoritarian and at times brutal decision-making concerning herd culls, and the ignoring of practical solutions to on-farm problems, the study said.
Another farmer recounted how MPI officials insisted on following the mandated process of decontaminating a shed at a cost of $150,000 when he could have had it rebuilt for $70,000.
On another farm a cleaning team was paid to sit at a table dipping individual screws into disinfectant and scrubbing them clean with a wire brush when the cost of brand new screws was
negligible, the study said.
MPI Mycoplasma bovis programme director Stuart Anderson said he hadn't seen the full report yet but looked forward to being able to include it into lessons learned during the eradication process.
"We know the M bovis eradication effort has been especially challenging for the farmers involved, and even when the process goes as intended and by the book, it is tough for those affected by movement restrictions and directions to cull their animals," he said.
"We and our partners Dairy NZ and Beef and Lamb NZ, are continuing to work hard to support the well-being and recovery of those impacted by M bovis."
Anderson said the eradication of the disease had been one of the most significant biosecurity challenges faced in New Zealand.
"We listened to a lot of farmer feedback and our Programme staff have been very focused on farmer welfare, including getting farmers through the process faster with more support and shorter turnaround times for farms under movement restrictions.
"Alongside our partners, we have improved the compensation process with claims paid as quickly as possible."
He said there was a philosophy of continuous improvement and learning in the programme, in the last two years it had moved to greater regional-based decision-making allowing for faster action.
It has continued to develop a range of farmer support services, unique to this disease eradication programme and ensured programme staff have the specialist skills, experience and industry knowledge for the job ahead, he said.
MPI estimates allowing the disease to spread would have caused $1.3 billion in lost productivity in the first 10 years alone.
Three years on from the joint decision by government and the farming industry to attempt to eradicate the cattle disease things are on track, Anderson said.
"Of the 267 properties that have been confirmed with M bovis, as at 17 June 2021, only 6 Active Confirmed (currently infected) properties, many of which will be cleaned and cleared, on their way to back to farming as usual over the coming weeks."
Study makes recommendations
The researchers were guided by a stakeholder panel with farmer, veterinarian, local business, (human) health professional, rural organisation, agribusiness and MPI representation.
Doolan-Noble said another disease incursion was inevitable and solutions needed to be sought from within rural communities.
"What we'd really like to see is people coming together in partnership, so MPI, local farmers, local vets, agribusiness, everyone coming together who has got a stake in this, saying 'how are we going to make the response better the next time'," she said.
Key recommendations included:
- The development of a regional interprofessional body to develop pragmatic approaches to future incursions
- Genuine local engagement to seek solutions from the ground up
- The formation of a nationwide 'standing army' of rural-based experts who can be called on to help shape the response to the next incursion.