3. M.Bovis plan relies on flawed tracking

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister for Primary Industries, Damien O'Connor announce the plan to eradicate M. Bovis. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Government plans to eradicate mycoplasma bovis over 10 years, but will start by allowing mass stock movements from Friday that rely on a discredited tracking system, Thomas Coughlan reports.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the decision to eradicate rather than manage the cattle disease in a joint event with industry players. The plan to cull an estimated 152,000 cattle will cost the Government and the industry $886 million in lost production and compensation, while the alternative long-term management plan would have cost $1.2 billion. A 'do nothing' plan was costed at $1.3 billion.

Ardern repeatedly said that the Government had ‘one shot’ to eradicate the disease completely. No other country has successfully eradicated mycoplasma bovis, which is not harmful to human health and is already in other country's dairy herds. The compensation cost of $860 million will be shared 68 percent by taxpayers and 32 percent by Beef and Lamb and DairyNZ. By comparison, the Kiwifruit industry paid up to 50 percent of the cost of eradicating PSA seven years ago.

But the “phased eradication” model means that most cattle will still be free to travel up and down the country, including on the June 1 “Gypsy Day,” which will see a massive stock transfers by sharemilkers and by farmers moving cattle onto winter feed farms.

“An element of risk” in stock movement

The Ministry of Primary Industries, which is tasked with monitoring and eradicating the disease, does not believe this mass movement of stock will significantly harm New Zealand’s chances of eradicating the disease, which is notoriously difficult to detect, even after several tests.

“Farmers should have confidence dealing with other farms that are not under any form of regulatory control. There is no zero risk, but we think it is very minimal,” said MPI’s director of readiness and response Geoff Gwyn.

“Is the herd you’re bringing on NAIT compliant? Do you know the health history of that herd? Do you want to quarantine it for seven days?” he said. 

NAIT is a stock tracking system designed to monitor the movement of herds, however compliance has been known to be as low as 30 percent in some areas. 

Responding to the question that NAIT compliance was so low that farmers could not depend on it, Gwyn said, “it’s a bit of a mixed bag”.

“We don’t necessarily want to focus on those that have not lived up to all their NAIT obligations. There’s a hell of a lot of farmers out there that do,” Gwyn said. 

But Gwyn added that the many farmers who were not NAIT compliant may find it difficult shifting stock. 

“Quite frankly, if they can’t provide you that evidence and you’re going to purchase a herd from them, then you’re going to have to make a decision whether or not you want to accept that risk,” he said. 

Gwyn said that there was an element of risk in continuing to allow stock movements, but that the only other option would be to “shut down the entire industry”.

Lincoln University honorary professor Keith Woodford told Newsroom that he knew of cases where farmers could not shift stock because of a lack of confidence in the testing.

In spite of the bulls being tested multiple times and being clean, nobody at the moment is likely to be willing to risk taking those bulls because the testing procedures are so flawed,” he said.

The cost to farmers

The eradication effort will come at a heavy cost to affected farmers who will have to part with entire herds, although a compensation scheme is in the works. 

Gavin Forrest of Federated Farmers said the early detection of the disease meant New Zealand had a shot at eradicating it. 

No country has successfully eradicated the disease after it had been discovered, however it often takes time for symptoms to present which has led some countries to conclude the disease was present for a decade before detection. 

Farmers will be compensated for lost herds. MPI said that it would speed up compensation claims. The Ministry said a “substantial” part of the farmer’s compensation claim should take four to 10 days, with a fully verified claim taking two to three weeks. 

“Phased eradication”

The Government says 126,000 cattle will need to be culled, the bulk in the next one to two years, adding to the 26,000 that have already been culled.

This is roughly four percent of the 4.2 million cattle slaughtered annually in New Zealand, but industry representatives do not think it will lead to any change in the price of beef. 

They are also confident that slaughterhouses will be able to adjust to the increased demand. 

The Government also warned that the nature of the disease, which often lies dormant before presenting itself during times of stress, means that entire herds will be culled including ostensibly healthy animals.

Modelling suggests that 192 properties in total will need to be depopulated to deal with the disease, out of more than 20,000 beef and dairy farms nationwide. 

But the response will be phased, with farmers allowed to keep their herds longer, even allowing them to milk out the rest of the seasons as long as the risk is controlled.

“This preserves cash flow for the farmer and we can control the risk,” said Gwyn.