Mycoplasma bovis – focusing on the immediate

[This is an open letter to the Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor, sent on the evening of 29 May 2018, as part of an ongoing dialogue.]

Dear Damien

Mycoplasma bovis: focusing on the immediate

This is a further open letter. It is an open letter because it contains information that I believe both you and others need to hear.

First of all, I want to acknowledge phone and email interactions we have had in recent days. I note in particular that you emailed me at 3am this morning which surely tells its own story. Farmers too are emailing me at that time, indicative of the stress they are under.

Now that the eradication decision has been made, then I do not wish to debate that here. Instead I want to focus on maximising the chances that it will work and minimising the pain to the affected farmers.

On the Newshub AM show this morning I focused among other things on the need for MPI to ‘up its game’. Response Director Geoff Gwyn subsequently acknowledged that there may well be lessons to learn, but did not name any when asked by the presenter, and said that he thought that MPI had done many things well.

Accordingly, my focus here is on some ‘coalface’ issues that MPI is really struggling with right now and which are causing great personal pain to affected farmers.  Quite simply, MPI does not have efficient decision-making processes for approving the movement of cows on NOD (suspect) farms from the milking platforms to the winter feed.

In the South Island, most farmers shift their cows to another farm for the winter. This is nothing to do with Gypsy Day, it is just part of the standard farming system. This year it would have started It started some weeks ago, with animals moving off the milking platform as they are dried off, and coming back to the home farm typically in late July or August, depending on calving date of specific animals

Currently there are some 300 farms on movement control as NOD (suspect) farms and many of them are in a situation right now where the cows and feed are in different locations. By now they should all be on wintering blocks. This is becoming a big animal welfare issue with downstream consequentials.

You have told me that you have been trying to speed up the decision process. But the message I am getting from the field today is that the decisions are still not getting made.

I heard mention from Geoff Gwyn this morning on the AM show that there are 25 more case managers to be allocated. That is all very well, but these case managers do not seem to actually have the power to make things happen.

Farmers on NOD (suspect) farms have enough that is stressing them already, without having to deal with a case manager who has no power to assist.  It is essential that the case manager can deal directly with a person who has delegated authority to allow animal movements to winter feed.  Further layers in the system are totally non-productive.

I also mention that I believe Government is underestimating the complexity of the claims process. I would expect the majority of the approximately 300 NOD properties (to date) will have claims of one type or another, and almost none will be simple.  Even for apparently simple IP (infected property) cases, I am seeing farmers who are accepting low values for animals just to speed up the process.    And a meaningful start has yet to be made on the more difficult issue of income loss.  However, I am getting reports that the task of trying to verify a loss of income claim is horrendous.

Coming back to the immediate priority, for NOD properties we have to get cows to their winter feed.

Keith Woodford
(M.Agr Sci, PhD, MNZIPIM)
Principal Consultant, AgriFood Systems Ltd

Updated at 10.17 pm on 29 May. The Minister Damien O’Connor has come back to me stating that : Keith. Have been discussing that very issue of authority and flexibility for NODs. We are very aware of feed situation and complex challenge to reduce animal and human welfare pressure. Regards. Damien


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.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Dairy, Mycoplasma bovis. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Mycoplasma bovis – focusing on the immediate

  1. Matt Walker says:

    It’s refreshing to see comments coming out of a Lincoln associate, let alone out of any part of this industry, that aren’t entirely dishonest, for once. Kudos for that.

    A number of things were immediately clear to me prior to admissions being made by the Guy led MPI. See my FaceBook post, written the day after Nathan informed the public that the disease had been confirmed here. MPI had then claimed it was isolated…I said something to the effect of – just you wait one month, there’s no chance this is isolated. When I saw recently the map showing the vast array of locations the disease has been confirmed, my immediate thought was that there is no way this disease has spread that far this quickly. I feel like vomiting just thinking about it.

    I’d cosign this, but a) O’Connor has displayed utter disregard for science on more than one occasion already. He is unlikely to listen to scientific opinion unless it fits with his own preconceived beliefs, that is unless our scientific institutions as a whole start pulling their weight and applying pressure to the Minister to do so. I struggle to see any difference between O’Connor and Nathan Guy, the previous Minister for Primary Industries, in that respect. I see from O’Connor’s response, dated May 27, that he is content with continuing to pretend he is aware of much at all, let alone the real damage this disease threatens us with. And b) I disagree, whether popularly or not, that the solution is to continue funneling money down the toilet in a futile attempt to prop up the dairy industry. This industry is toxic, in more ways than one cares to spend time describing.

    Some questions remain unanswered afaiac. How long has the cover up been going on for? Why did the so called experts, e.g. at Lincoln University Dairy Farm, fail to pick up on this earlier? As much as I dislike both the previous Minister and the current one, can we really blame them for their failures on this? So called agricultural scientists ought to be taking responsibility, for their own failure to identify the disease earlier, and to inform both authorities and the public in a timely manner. Guy isn’t a scientist, neither is O’Connor. Both are linked financially to industry.

    Perhaps if our agricultural ‘scientists’ had done a better job informing government we mightn’t be in this position now.

    A day ago I wrote to Professor Gluckman, expressing my view on the issue:

    “Dear Professor,

    I am skeptical of the governments capacity to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis.

    To my knowledge no country has been able to achieve this to date, with the disease costing the US and European industries hundreds of millions per year.

    As you may be aware, the pathogen is unable to be treated with the vast majority of antibiotics, due to the unusual characteristics of the bacterium (capacity to live outside of cells; lack of a cell wall), coupled with the mechanism by which most antibiotics exert their effects (destruction of cell walls).

    Although a handful of antibiotics are useful, the widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is known to contribute to the development of drug resistant human disease. This is worrying with respect to Mycoplasma bovis, due to the serious impacts it likely has on human populations exposed to it (pre-term birth, miscarriage, male sterility, and likely involvement in pathogenesis of several types of cancers).

    Although Draxxin may be an option, it is my view that a better solution may involve the use of Mycoplasma susceptible bacteriophages.

    Unfortunately such treatment is likely to render dairy product from treated cattle inconsumable. I have a few ideas as to how one might get around this, but frankly my number one concern is preventing spread to human populations, and doing so without contributing to the development of drug resistance.

    Accepted preventative measures are incredibly costly, I.e. swabs being taken following offload of transport vehicles after every delivery, to be sent to labs for analysis. I am unsure of the number of transport vehicles offloading animals each day in New Zealand, but can only assume the number is a substantially large one.

    Allowing only authorized visitors into farms might have limited benefit, given it is often staff themselves inadvertantly spreading the disease. Criticisms are also likely to be made that such regulations would be a type of ag-gag law in disguise. Either way there will certainly be implications with regards to industry transparency if such conditions are implemented.

    Weekly inspection and maintenance of all farms sounds costly, also, but is likely necessary if prevention is our aim.

    I am also concerned that the extent to which this disease has spread is being greatly underestimated. The difficulty inherent in identification of this pathogen is evidenced by the history of its discovery, which included multiple misidentifications despite the use of advanced scientific methods (metabolic assays, antigenicity assays, morphological characterization, etc.).

    Would love to speak more with you about this, and if I can do anything to help formulate an effective action plan do let me know.

    Sincerely yours, ”

    Matt Walker
    BA BSc PgDipSci (Distinction)

    • farmerbraun says:

      Were symptoms apparent on the presumed source farm at any time prior to the first public notification, and if so , what was the veterinary involvement in treatment?
      There seems to be a disconnect.

      • Matt Walker says:

        Well, you run a dairy operation. So tell me what are the signs and symptoms of this disease? Penicillin resistant mastitis? Severe pneumonia, hacking cough, ear infection progressing to discharge, followed by head tilt? If dairy farmers are as knowledgeable about their own animals as they would have us believe, you’d think they would have spotted this quite easily. It sticks out like a sore thumb at nearly every dairy operation I have stepped foot onto. It should be quite easy, therefore, to realize that something is seriously wrong, in infected herds. That is unless, of course, sick animals are the status quo throughout NZ dairy operations. Doesn’t sound like either possibility could reflect on industry in a positive manner. Looking at recent historical somatic cell counts, based on the industries own data, it was obvious to me before apparently anybody else that this disease had been here for some time, and was not isolated as MPI claimed early this year. But I guess when the biosecurity team is run by people that aren’t qualified in the biological sciences, this is what you ought to expect. Surely.

    • farmerbraun says:

      I have some difficulty with the idea that the industry that I am in , and have been in , at all levels, for fifty years, is toxic.
      I can accept that there are elements and practices in recent dairy developments to which that description can be applied, but the description does not apply to my dairy operation.
      Too broad a brush , perhaps?

      • Matt Walker says:

        Perhaps you are right. I’m open to the possibility…Perhaps I suffer from bias, conflict of interest, etc.? Are you open to the possibility, similarly? I.e. likewise, perhaps you are wrong, perhaps you suffer from bias, conflict of interest, etc.?

        As much as I’d like to drape you with compliments, I have not seen your operation. Will you invite me to come and see it for myself? I too, albeit regretfully, have spent time working in the dairy industry. What I have seen over the last 30 years concerns me. And I must deal in facts, not compliments. I would be more than happy for you to invite me onto your facility, to demonstrate how it is different to the vast majority of dairy operations in New Zealand. if I am wrong,If you can demonstrate that, I’ll certainly consider retracting my statement. Will you accept the challenge?

        Personally, I’ve grown up both on and around dairy farms myself. I’ve witnessed first hand plenty of dairy operations, having been born & raised in Nth Canterbury. I even worked for Fonterra, once upon a time, quite regretfully. And having recently visited the LUDF, which is claimed to showcase industry best practice, in their own words, I’ve also left that facility remaining quite unimpressed, to say the least. More than happy to discuss that over a cuppa.

        Is your operation better than theirs is? If so, I could only suggest that perhaps your farm ought to be the demonstration farm, rather than Lincolns. If your operation is an exceptional one, with high standards, I genuinely feel sorry for you, as well. The rest of the industry are doing a great job at destroying the reputations of one another. Dairy NZ CEO, Tim Mackle, refuses to engage in conversation with me. When I met him at LUDF, he attempted to pretend he was somebody else. Excuse me for being incredibly skeptical, but I’m not sure it’s fair to blame me for that, given my experiences. .

        As far as dealing to the problem goes – Professor Gluckman has suggested I contact Head of Biosecurity, Roger Smith. I’m not sure what use that could possibly be..There isn’t a single agricultural or biological scientist on the senior leadership team at MPI. This is the team that are tasked with dealing to this problem. In fact there is only one qualified scientist on that team, and their background is in forestry. Why is it that MPI is run by lawyers, the only scientist holding merely an undergraduate degree, and in an irrelevant field?

        Bryan Wilson is responsible for animal welfare and biosecurity. What are his qualifications? Your guess is as good as mine. Last time I checked he was working for Telecom. How could he possibly be qualified to oversee animal welfare and biosecurity?

        Dan Bolger is an economist. Surely if we are interested in addressing an infectious disease, there ought to be at least one veterinary scientist, at least one biomedical scientist, but instead we have John Ryan, with past experience in Ballet and Jazz festivals, and as an Executive at MoJ and the Building Industry Authority. I struggle to imagine the Royal New Zealand Ballet Festival could have prepared him to address threats to biosecurity.

        How about Nick Maling? Nope…Nick’s background is as a journalist, a press secretary, and working in areas of law and communications. I’m not certain any of these people know what a bacterium looks like, let alone how to control or eradicate one as tough as Mycoplasma bovis.

        That leaves Jarred Mair and Dave Samuels. One has a Masters degree in Public Administration, and another in Defence and Strategic Studies. The other was an Associate Director at Deloitte. It leaves Dr Allan Freeth. Don’t let the name fool you, though, he isn’t a general medical practitioner. His qualifications, and work experience, are in business. Namely his previous roles at TelstraClear, Wrightson Limited, Trust Bank New Zealand Limited, etc..

        As I told Professor Gluckman today, if these are the people in charge of overseeing biosecurity in New Zealand, we may as well count ourselves doomed right now. I’d much rather see Gluckman himself, or even the author of this blog, Keith Woodward, being tasked with dealing to this issue.

        Lawyers are good at law, directors are good at business, farmers are good at farming. Assessing and mitigating biological disease should be left to biological scientists. Surely this is obvious.

        Look forward to an invite to see your operations, regardless, I will always remain open to the possibility that I am wrong. If you can demonstrate it, I’ll do my best to avoid bias as much as is humanly possible, and retract my previous statement. Offer is there.


      • farmerbraun says:

        Here’s a link :
        There is a facebook link there also. No apology necessary 🙂

  2. Keith,

    Many thanks for this continuing effort to keep all informed, and offering help to both farmers and officials. Your perspectives are important I believe.

    Two questions: First the issue of stigma. I have heard various people asserting that properties on which positive testing cattle have been found are diminished in value..the thought being that some how the land, or facilities, can carry the bug and infect arriving cattle. This seems unlikely, it is hard to imagine a cell wall less bacterium thriving outside its host. Can you shed any light on this point?

    Second I read of studies in the Netherlands and Hungary that report many different strains of M. bovis (often different smaller regions seem to have distinct strains, I wonder if they are all “hot” strains), and that some strains are susceptible to antibiotic treatment, particularly fluoroquinolones. So the question is: is work on serotyping our strain or strains being done, and is anyone looking at antibiotic sensitivity of the strain(s) in NZ?

    Kind regards

    • Keith Woodford says:

      I cannot answer those questions with confidence. But even if there is no rationality to it, I think people may be reluctant initially to buy a farm that has had infected cattle. Perhaps of more significance is that in the current environment all dairy farms look somewhat less attractive to buyers. The exception is smaller properties that may have a future as support blocks – farmers will be looking for those.
      As for the drug susceptibility, one of the issues is that drugs act differently in vivo than in vitro. But it does seem as if the NZ strain may have some capability to bypass the usual suite of antibiotics even in vitro.
      Hopefully we are not too far away from working out how it got here; that will provide some foundations for the path ahead.

    • John W Hill says:

      Hi Brian, I came from a dairy farm in New Zealand. My parents wanted me to go to Lincoln but ended up in Christchurch studying mechanical engineering instead which did not go down all that well. I moved to Canada and finished the degree doing evening class and served a tool & die making apprenticeship during the day. Married a dairy & beef farmers youngest daughter from Canada’s east coast where we no live. While I don’t work on the farm we are out there just about every week working on his automated milking systems. We have mycoplasma bovis here and it shows up in the bulk milk test but nothing that we would get excited about, that is unless we were in New Zealand. In answer to your question about mycoplasma bovis surviving outside of the cow, It does and can be found in nature in ponds bedding piles and a variety of other places. Keith, keep an eye on moisture and temperature in your compost barns.
      All the best

      • Matt Walker says:

        You sure dodged a bullet there, John! At least the engineering degree ought to serve you well. A respectable qualification.

    • Matt Walker says:


      I can answer some of those questions. In fact I already have in one of my previous posts. The New Zealand strain is no different to those identified overseas, the problem is that this particular bacterium has abnormal characteristics. It can survive in colonies outside of cells, and it does not have a cell wall. The vast majority of antibiotics work by damaging/destroying bacterial cell walls, thus explaining why they are useless in treating Mycoplasma bovis. Yes, some of the fluoroquinolones may be effective in treating this disease (see Dan Van Arsdall Anderson, D.E., Rings M.D. Current Veterinary Therapy. Vaccines. calfology.).

      However dousing animals routinely with antibiotics comes with serious, well substantiated, negative implications for human and animal health. Most notably antibiotic resistance. It is well known that antibiotic resistance due to the overuse of these drugs in animal agriculture has resulted in drug resistant human disease. Tetracyclines are but one example of an antibiotic group that is effective in treating Mycoplasma, Consider the tetracycline Doxyxyline. Its efficacy in treating serious human disease (anthrax, chlamydia, plague, Legionaires Disease) has been greatly reduced due to the development of bacterial drug resistance.

      Erythromycin is another example, effective in treating Mycoplasma, but also becoming less and less useful in treating serious human disease due to the development of drug resistance. Draxxin is effective in treating Mycoplasma bovis, it is a macrolyde, yet another class of antibiotics that is becoming less and less useful in treating human disease due to the development of resistance. DairyNZ seem to think it’s a wonderful idea to contribute to that problem, by suggesting its use on their website. Thanks for that, Timothy Mackle! Who awards PhD’s to such incompetent scientists, seriously? Presumably Massey or Lincoln, are my best bets.

      The fact is, if there were a remotely realistic way of fighting this dairy industry facilitated disease, the European dairy industry would have found it by now. After all, Mycoplasma costs that industry over 500 million Euro every year. Every time Damien O’Connor opens his mouth and claims this government are going to eradicate Mycoplasma, he is simply lying to us all. He has a long track record for dishonesty, and like the MPI team, does not have a science qualification. I’d be surprised if he could describe the morphology of these bacteria, let alone an effective way to eliminate them, from our once beautiful country.

      Sorry if the industry don’t like the cold hard truth, but the best way forward for New Zealand is for the industry to be stopped in its tracks, before it causes any more harm than it already has done. That’s my scientifically informed view. Who cares what O’Connor thinks, he knows nothing.

      • Matt Walker says:

        ^Should clarify, it is no different ‘in that respect’. Of course, even different bacterial colonies within the same animal can have differences. I’m talking treatment relevant differences here.

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