Mycoplasma bovis: do we need to go so fast and should the North and South Islands be managed separately?

[This is a letter that I sent today (25 May 2018)  to the Minister of Agriculture, Damien O’Connor]

Honourable Damien O’Connor
Minister of Agriculture

Greetings Damien

Mycoplasma bovis

I am writing this to you because of the huge decision that Government has to make on Monday. It is an open letter, because there are issues which all New Zealanders need to be informed of.

In a perfect world, we would all hope for eradication of Mycoplasma bovis. But the world is not perfect, and there are no good solutions. Unfortunately, there are real risks that an ongoing policy of eradication is one where the medicine is worse than the disease.

I have been following developments since the first identification of an infection, this being the Tainui property owned by the Van Leeuwen Group and share-farmed by Mary and Sarel Potgieter. I contacted the Van Leeuwens at that time, and I have written about Mycoplasma on six occasions since then (at my own website where articles are archived, and elsewhere), and I have also been interviewed by various radio programs.

I am in contact with the Potgieters (and have their claim documents). I am also in contact with quite some number of the farmers with IPs (Infected Properties) and NODs (suspected properties), who typically contact me because they feel their voices are not to being heard.  These emails come through at all hours of the night, which is indicative of the stress these people are under.

So as there is no misunderstanding, I confirm that I am not paid by anyone with a direct involvement in the Mycoplasma outcomes.

Damien, I think the South Island perspectives are quite different than in the North Island.

It is now ten months since the disease was identified in the South Island. During that time awareness has spread throughout the rural community, as the IPs and NODs have spread, and the human stress has extended with it.  As one farmer said to me yesterday when he rang, when he goes to the country rugby on a Saturday afternoon, the other farmers no longer talk to him about either the weather or the rugby itself; they all want to talk about Mycoplasma bovis.  By contrast, in the North Island farmers are only now starting to recognise that it could be their problem as well as someone else’s problem.

If Government does decide to go forward with ongoing eradication, then it is essential that Government recognises the logistical and human issues. To put it bluntly, the performance to date of MPI and their contractors in the South Island gives no confidence.

I will give some examples, but only identifying farmers who have previously identified themselves publicly.

Frank and Diane Peters watched the last of their spring calving herd depart to the works this morning for compulsory slaughter. None of those 870 animals was diseased, but they did have one individual animal that had a positive PCR reading and some low-level antibody readings. As to where the Mycoplasma bovis organism came from, the Peters NAIT records (which are complete) show three shipments of cows from the Zeestraten Southland farm way back in April 2014, and then four Hereford bulls from Nelson in 2015.  There is no reason to suspect these Hereford bulls. Nothing else has come onto the farm. So, there is no other obvious way that exposure to Mycoplasma bovis occurred except from Southland in 2014.

The situation of the Peters’ herd raises profound issues. The first is that MPI is only acknowledging presence of the disease in New Zealand back to the end of 2015. And even this acknowledgement has been long delayed, whereas to those of us close to the action the earlier entry of the disease has been obvious for many months.  The reason it has been apparent to us is that it is the only conclusion that makes sense, given the circumstantial evidence we have been seeing on multiple farms.

If the disease was with us way back in 2014 (or earlier) then there is an awful lot of tracing still to occur.

The second issue is why, if Mycoplasma is such a terrible disease, have the Peters had no clinical cases.

Just yesterday, I was also talking to a veterinarian with ten years of veterinary experience dealing with Mycoplasma bovis in the USA, and now some ten years of experience here in New Zealand. He believes he saw Mycoplasma bovis in New Zealand on a clients’ property when he first arrived, but could not get any laboratory to test to confirm his diagnosis.

In regard to when it arrived, this organism is a simple organism that has been living in the upper respiratory tract and the urogenital tract of cattle for many thousands of years. Most of the time it has no effect on healthy cattle, but occasionally it sees an opportunity to make its presence felt in animals which for one reason or another have limited immunity. What some vets are now saying to me is that it may well have been here hiding away since cattle were first brought to New Zealand nearly 200 years ago. Or it may have come in with shipments of cattle any time over the 200 years thereafter.

Consistent with the above hypothesis, it is not surprising that the bulk milk tests have been showing ‘all clear’, including cases such as the Peters whose herds were tested three times without any positives. Indeed, they have a certificate from Fonterra that their milk was clean. But once a detailed search for the needles in the haystack takes place, then yes, on occasions they can indeed be found. And if we tested all New Zealand’s herds at the level of scrutiny that the suspect herds are being tested, then we might find a lot more cases, particularly of antibodies in healthy animals.

It is important to note that MPI is still trying to deal with the claims for loss of income from the first identified herd at Tainui farm in South Canterbury.  Mary Potgieter has confirmed to me this morning that so far, they have only received approximately $3500 for some incidental expenses, which even then MPI quibbled over. As for loss of income, they have received “not a cent”.

Independently of that, I was advised by the Van Leeuwens just two days ago that they have now received substantial but still partial compensation for the animals themselves, but nothing for loss of income. Their bank will not lend them further sums to purchase new animals, and they have to manage this from their own greatly diminished cash flows.

Clearly, there is a difference of situation between what the farmers are saying they are receiving and the message that MPI has been giving to the public, although I do note that the MPI spokesperson did admit last night that he did not actually know if any payments had been made for loss of income.

I have some sympathy for the MPI staff trying to deal with loss of income claims as they are indeed complex. All of these claims have to verify what would have happened without the disease, rather than what did happen with the disease. But if MPI is still trying to deal with claims from the first identified property, then what is going to happen when the claims start flowing from the close to 300 properties who have NODs and which are now having their businesses disrupted? There is already going to be a tsunami of claims, and all will be complex. And if the current eradication policy continues, an even bigger tsunami is going to follow.

I know of some farms that were placed in lockdown with NODs but have now had those revoked. As it stands, those farmers are eligible for business disruption compensation for the period of the NOD but are not eligible for compensation beyond the date of NOD revocation. But the effect of these NODs is that their business is greatly damaged, for example graziers have lost their contracts to raise young animals, with no other animals now available to them.

There is another farmer I am aware of who has more than 1000 rising one-year bulls. I am told that his farm has tested clear some three times, and there is no longer a lockdown in place. But knowing the history of these animals, no-one is going to take the risk to buy them. And the farmer himself has no feed to get these animals through the winter. So, they too will need to be slaughtered.  These are just specific examples of a common situation.

The biggest area of stress currently would seem to be Mid Canterbury, although Southlanders might dispute that.  Everybody is scared, not so much of the disease itself, but of the effect of MPI finding the disease and ordering an eradication. These people can only see ahead of them the destruction of their lives.

A key issue going forward has to be the capability of MPI to handle the logistics. Yesterday I was talking to yet another farmer, who is still a NOD, but where the suspect trace animals left for the North Island before the first identified outbreak. The location of these animals, now in Northland, is known. However, testing remains incomplete some ten months since they travelled north, and six months after the forward traces were identified.

I could write a great deal more, but here I will cut to the chase. It may be time to consider whether the North island and the South Island should be considered separately.

Many months ago, you voiced the possibility of using Cook Strait as a natural barrier, but presumably you were talked out of that. Maybe it is still possible to use Cook Strait as a barrier, and to eradicate the organism in the North Island with a slaughter program, although I must admit my scepticism given the delays that have occurred.

However, here in the South Island, there is a desperate need for some breathing space. There is a desperate need to get information as to the proportion of suspect properties that are likely to be confirmed positive. And in the meantime, there is no major biosecurity risk associated with allowing supposedly infected herds to continue to be farmed. With appropriate biosecurity in place, they could be milked through the next season, allowing for much more structured and planned actions to then take place, with much less business disruption.

We also need to reflect on why it is that Mycoplasma bovis is not a notifiable disease in other parts of the world. Rather, farmers just get on with the job of managing it. The messages that I am hearing are that vets and also many farmers in these countries, including in Australia where the disease is endemic, are absolutely puzzled at the panic we have got ourselves into.

In the past, here in New Zealand we have run very successful programs for eradication of brucellosis and bovine leucosis.  With TB, we have also had great success, despite some great challenges. We also have further challenges in front of us, including Johne’s disease, which is surely more of an issue than Mycoplasma bovis. But have we now lost our perspective? Have we recognised the incredible difficulty with eradicating Mycoplasma bovis, which no-one has ever done on a national scale, and for which our diagnostic tests are so flawed?

My final message is that farmers are telling me that if the eradication program is to continue, then they want to know the expert information on which this decision is being based. At a meeting yesterday, I heard an industry official say ‘we have to trust the Government experts’. That perspective was not well received, given the performance to date.

I am available to discuss further at any time.


Keith Woodford
Principal Consultant, AgriFood Systems Ltd
Hon. Professor, Lincoln University

Update: I have subsequently (still 25 May 2018) spent more than an hour talking on the phone to the Minister during which time we canvassed many aspects of the topic.  Although we have some different perspectives, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to discuss these issues in depth with the Minister.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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6 Responses to Mycoplasma bovis: do we need to go so fast and should the North and South Islands be managed separately?

  1. Steve McCowan says:

    Well written Keith – lets hope they have the IQ to understand it…………..

  2. peter vause says:

    For the sake of our civilization, I hope that we get your DNA safely in a jar before it is too late!
    The collective stupidity of intelligent individuals is ubiquitous.

  3. Ben says:

    Great letter. I really hope it has the intended effect. As a situation evolves sometimes it is necessary to change strategy, and this is one of those times.

  4. Honora Renwick says:

    Regarding getting compensation from MPI: It could be like the EQC nightmare all over again.

  5. Pingback: Rural roundup | Homepaddock

  6. Greg Paul says:

    Yes I think it is too late to eradicate. Firstly there is to many unrecorded stock movements and secondly no one will report sick animals because of the difficulty in dealing with MPI. Feed your stock well and it doesn’t seem to much drama.

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