By Keith Woodford*
Opinion - Yesterday's decision by the government to undertake a "phased eradication" of Mycoplasma bovis is a useful compromise from the 'nuclear' slaughter option. It allows farmers to negotiate as to when their infected herds will be culled. This is a retreat from what has been occurring to date.
The key statement from the government is that: "There will be some flexibility for farmers in the timing of culling to offset production losses". Further elaboration of this statement is needed.
A second key point is that the government has committed to reviewing the situation in the spring. By then, we will have a lot more information, which should allow more considered decisions. The government may then indeed choose to go down the off-ramp.
Most of the identified infected herds are in the South Island. In the case of milking farms, I expect most infected South Island farmers will choose within allowable limits to wait and see what happens.
All of these herds are showing no clinical symptoms. In contrast, for graziers with infected dairy-beef stock, they may choose to get rid of the animals as soon as possible.
There are going to be huge challenges for MPI. To date, they have not covered themselves in glory. All members of their response team will have been working hard within imposed limits, but the MPI system has let them down with too many layers of management and an inability to make timely operational decisions for each farm.
The most urgent issue right now relates to all of the Notice of Direction (NOD) suspect farms in the South Island that have their cows and their feed in different locations.
As just one example of many, there is a Mid Canterbury farmer I know of who is caught in the constipated bureaucracy and as of today still cannot get approval to shift his stock less than 2km to another farm he owns (and which he agrees will then also become a NOD farm).
These cows need to be moved and should have been progressively moved over recent weeks as they were dried-off, if they are to have feed to eat. This farm is not one of the infected properties, rather it is just one of the 300 NOD suspect properties.
We don't know how many farms are in this situation of cows isolated from their winter feed, but almost certainly well more than 100. This is not the 'gypsy day' situation but something quite different. And it is a big animal and human welfare issue.
The government appears to be underestimating the complexity of the compensation claims. The challenge is that claims have to be "verified", but loss of income claims are always debatable. Claim settlements require agreement on what would have happened and by definition that is impossible to verify objectively.
An MPI source advises that any claim more than $75,000 requires five separate signatures across various ministries from within the Wellington bureaucracy after the technical assessors have reached agreement. Given the future tsunami of claims, from both infected and suspect properties, and the reality that almost no claims have yet to be settled except in partial amounts, there will be a need for a separate and preferably independent Claims Assessment Commission.
The government estimates that the eradication program will last for ten years, albeit with much of the eradication occurring in the first two years. Accordingly, farmers will still need to work on the assumption that Mycoplasma bovis can rear its head at any time during those ten years, and maybe thereafter.
The key actions that all farmers need to take are to minimise stock movements onto their farms and to stop the practice of feeding calves with unpasteurised 'red milk' from hospital cows. Taking cattle to saleyards needs to stop, with any movements being directly from farm to farm, and no mixing of stock during transport.
We need a regulation making it unlawful to feed calves with 'hospital cow' milk unless it is pasteurised.
Some farmers will not be pleased by such rules and required changes in farming practice. However, it is taxpayers who are picking up much of the bill.
There are no obvious direct benefits to taxpayers from Mycoplasma bovis eradication, so it is reasonable for taxpayers to expect farmers to now do everything in their power to assist in controlling this disease.
*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous Mycoplasma articles are archived here