Aad and Wilma van Leeuwen have been living in a nightmare since Mycoplasma bovis was discovered in some of their cows:
The cost of Mycoplasma bovis could be a $50 million to $100m hit to Aad and Wilma van Leeuwen’s business, that’s if it continues longer term.
But that doesn’t count the cost of the heartache to them, their workers and community.
When they notified animal health issues in their dairy herd they believed they were doing the right thing for their people, their community, the Government and the wider dairy industry.
Now they are not so sure.
“In fact, to date, the way this response has been managed we feel has caused us and many other farmers in the district to be alienated and if the same circumstances were to recur we would have to seriously reconsider doing what we did,” Aad van Leeuwen said.
“It’s been a three-month nightmare and it’s far from over yet,” the couple said. . .
The couple’s plight hasn’t been helped by the spread of rumours based on ignorance and misinformation.
Looking back over the three months as several of the group’s farms now face eradication of all cows, the van Leeuwens harbour much disappointment over how the response was managed.
“It has been horrendous on us, our staff and our contract and sharemilkers.
“The impact has been devastating on all our people and for many it will mean the end forever – their businesses and their reputations have been destroyed.”
The near 90 staff had just had enough and being associated with a group farm had tainted them for the future, van Leeuwen said.
“And it shouldn’t be. There’s no need for it. There is a dirty stigma attached to it all now. People talk like it’s a plague. It’s nothing like that at all.”
He laid blame on an overdose of misinformation and people not knowing what they were doing.
He was critical of MPI’s response time.
“It took them five days to find out where our farms were and 10 days to put their feet on the first infected farm.
“We had the cows well sorted and separated by then – thank God this was not foot and mouth,” he said.
“We were very disappointed with comments from the media that targeted the robots (indoor system). We asked MPI, through the media, to clear this up and they never did. Their statements made it worse at the last public meeting.
“To get it right the initial outbreak was over just three farms, two outdoor grass and one what we call in-out, in over autumn and winter for shelter,” van Leeuwen said.
The outbreak on the first infected property was the in-out property but the cows were outside calving at the time.
It linked to two further farms, both outdoors.
Other rumours linked the outbreak to imported semen but the van Leeuwens don’t import semen directly. It would be very, very unlikely that only their stock was infected by semen from New Zealand suppliers.
But, ironically, as MPI put key emphasis on doing 39,000 blood tests, the blood testing and its lengthy process had been deemed unreliable, van Leeuwen said.
“MPI indicated that to us. They have admitted what we know too from our research of other countries that bulk milk testing is the best testing.
“That has caused a massive issue for us as we have a lot of young stock obviously not milking so blood tested and it’s unreliable.”
The van Leeuwens had asked MPI why more bulk milk testing was not being done, not just on their herds but also regionally and nationwide.
“We haven’t had an answer but we believe there seems to be no logic in what they are doing with blood testing.
“We got stuck in straight away and talked to the Aussies. They told us the best way was to bulk milk test at least two samples within one week from the same herd three days apart to catch the shedders. We are way past that now and believe this wasn’t done.
“It’s been so frustrating. We know our business, we have researched this and done everything possible to help and we have co-operated 100% but they have not listened or picked up on our input.
“We have taken the hit, for our people, our district and the NZ dairy industry.
“We were prepared to do that but now we are concerned that it will all be wasted.
“It is our belief that Mycoplasma bovis is in NZ as it got into our herd somehow and any day it could break out somewhere else and what does MPI do – believe they have it contained but we feel they may be grasping at straws to satisfy public perception.
“No one can deny the fact that it had to come to NZ from somewhere – that is the key to whether they can contain it or not.”
The disease must be somewhere else in New Zealand. It is possible it has been here for some time and gone undetected. It was only diagnosed in van Leeuwen’s stock through their vet’s extra research. (Covered in the ODT here). Other farmers and other vets may well have not recognised the symptoms.
As the first cows went to slaughter (on November 1) in the eradication process of an initial 4000 head of stock, the van Leeuwens were working on the economic analysis of their business going forward.
That included the overall cost of having all the group farms under indefinite lock-down, lost opportunity with young stock, the cost of not being able to use their own bulls, the added cost of having to retain calves and overall loss of production taking in the quarantine period of the properties and herd rebuilding.
“Compensation – we don’t know where the hell we are at.
“They are going to kill our stock but to date there is no proper guided plan for compensation before commencement of killing our stock.
“Depending on whether this disease is found in the robots, it hasn’t been, not yet anyway, we could be looking of anything from $50 million to $100m,” van Leeuwen said.
“They tell us we will be no worse off than when this started but we have nothing on the table as yet to prove this.
“We need compensation guaranteed from day one. The first day of lockdown of the farms has been the start of lost production and income.
“We have had three months of uncertainty and alienation. It’s been too long. We can’t afford to be waiting too long for compensation and while we were able to help keep our people in the saddle through the downturn we can’t do it a second time.
“We have worked 32 years in dairy, 24 in the Waimate district where we have invested heavily in the dairy industry and its processing businesses.
“Now, because of no fault of our own we could hit the wall before Christmas,” van Leeuwen said.
“For too long we have had our hands tied behind our back. We can’t make our own decisions and forward planning – there has been no clear plan from day one and three months down the track we are no further ahead.
“It’s disappointing, it’s devastating and it just should never have got to this.
“The MPI approach needs to change if they want people to notify,” van Leeuwen said.
“On the only positive note – if we do survive this, the VLDG will be Mb-free.
“As for the rest of the country, I can’t say that with any confidence for them,” he said.
If TB is diagnosed in a herd farmers are compensated for any stock that is killed.
That ensures they aren’t disadvantaged by doing the right thing – declaring their stock is infected and co-operating with vets and anyone else involved.
The van Leeuwens and their staff are losing their milking herd, replacement stock and their income.
They have done everything right from the start. They and their staff must be compensated for their own sakes and to ensure that other farmers know that it is safe to do the right thing should their cattle become infected.
Keith Woodford says the Mycoplasma bovis riddle is far from solved:
. . . The whole saga of the outbreak has been poorly communicated.
The starting point for error has been the widely reported falsehood that it is on intensive confinement farms owned by the van Leeuwen Group. In fact, the disease has not been detected to date on any of the four robot-milked free-stall farms owned by this family. Rather it is on five outdoor farms that they own.
One of the infected farms does have indoor wintering facilities. That farm is on heavy land with two free-stall barns available for wintering and in bad weather. But this is not an intensive farm like in America or much of Europe. These are grazing cows. And the intensity is broadly similar to some hundreds of New Zealand farmers who have off-paddock wintering facilities of various types. Unlike many New Zealand farms, this farm does milk cows during the winter.
Two of the other infected VLG farms have spring calving and seasonal milking. Another is a dry-stock farm, and the remaining infected farm is a calf-rearing unit.
The media has widely portrayed the van Leeuwen family as so-called rich listers. What has not been portrayed is that this family has got there the hard way. Aad immigrated to New Zealand in 1983, and Wilma’s parents also immigrated from Holland. Aad and Wilma worked their way up the dairy ladder, first as farm workers, then as managers, contract milkers and sharemilkers, and finally as farm owners.
It has been a more than thirty-year journey of hard work, innovation and business acumen. Some of their children are also now involved in the business.
These are hard working and innovative farmers who have created many jobs and made a significant economic and social contribution to their local community and the wider country.
I have taken an interest in the outbreak since first detected back in July. I contacted the van Leeuwens at that time to try and understand what was happening, and I have stayed in touch. My interest is that of a semi-retired academic who likes to follow issues from an independent perspective. I go wherever the evidence takes me.
Back in August, I wrote an article on Mycoplasma published in New Zealand Farmer, also at interest.co.nz, and also here at my own site. At that time, I wrote that “Regardless of whether or not the current outbreak can be contained, and the disease then eradicated, the ongoing risks from Mycoplasma bovis are going to have a big effect on the New Zealand dairy industry”.
I also wrote back then that “If the disease is contained and eradicated, then the industry and governmental authorities will need to work out better systems to prevent re-entry from overseas. And if the disease is not eradicated, then every farmer will have to implement new on-farm management strategies to minimise the effects.”
Those statements remain unchanged some three months later. . .
My understanding is that there has never been a documented case anywhere in the world of it being transferred in frozen semen, and all imported semen is frozen.
Aad van Leeuwen tells me that the van Leeuwen group has never imported semen themselves. However, like many other farmers, they do purchase semen from the major semen companies. If semen is the source, and the disease is not elsewhere, then the van Leeuwens have been exceedingly unlucky to be the only farmers to be struck. And if that is the case, then a great many other farmers can only thank their lucky stars that it was not them.
Given the lack of evidence for semen being the source, other possibilities need to be considered.
The normal transmission method for Mycoplasma bovis is from animal to animal. That raises the possibility that the original source is a live import. However, the oral advice from MPI (yet to be confirmed in writing) is that there have been no live cattle imported into New Zealand for the last three years.
Regardless of when animals were last imported into New Zealand, the importer was not the van Leeuwens, and the van Leeuwens have never received live imports on their farms. So once again, if a live import is the source, then the van Leeuwens have been exceedingly unlucky to the recipients of the disease. And what was the path by which it got there?
Molecular biologists may eventually be able to identify the strain of the organism and thereby identify its source as either Australian, which could implicate a live import, or alternatively Europe or the USA, which could implicate semen.
Testing for Mycoplasma bovis is not easy. Testing of individual animals can be by antibody (ELISA) testing of blood, but there are problems of both false positives and false negatives. Bulk tests of milk can be made using sophisticated PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology that seeks out key DNA sequences, but this will only give positive results if the animals are shedding the bacteria in their milk. With PCR, and with the levels of specificity being used, it needs multiple animals to be shedding before a positive reading is achieved. Swabs of animals can also be taken and tested.
In regard to testing, the bottom line is that no method is reliable by itself and multiple tests are required. The van Leeuwens have experienced this themselves, with one of their herds testing negative on two occasions and only on the third test did a mass of reactors show up. In the periods between the tests, no new animals came onto that farm, so presumably it was there all along from prior to the first testing.
There is now good confidence that all animal movements downstream from the van Leeuwen farms have been traced, and those herds continue to be rigorously tested. However, it is far from clear as to the extent of any upstream testing looking for the original source and dissemination from there.
The VLG-owned herds have been closed herds with no new animals brought in from outside the group for more than three years. However, like probably the majority of New Zealand farms, one sharemilker-owned herd on a VLG property has had animals brought in, and this herd is infected. This raises the possibility that it first came onto the van Leeuwen farms up to several years ago, but only became evident when it spread into one of the milking herds.
MPI have not been forthcoming as to the upstream (source) testing that has been conducted. But Aad van Leeuwen tells me it is his understanding that MPI upstream testing has not been undertaken looking at source farms going back prior to the start of the 2017 year. If this is correct, then it would seem an important omission.
Although MPI have conducted many thousands of tests, it is not clear as to the proportion of New Zealand’s farms that have undergone any testing, and the level of that testing. Almost certainly, it is only a small proportion of farms that have been tested. MPI have been unable to provide this information to me. And therein lies the uncertainty.
One of the problems we have in New Zealand is that the only Kiwis with Mycoplasma bovis expertise are those who have worked and trained overseas. I know the van Leeuwens are drawing on overseas expertise, but it is not clear to me as to the extent MPI is benefitting from overseas expertise.
What I am personally hearing from people with overseas Mycoplasma bovis experience is that we should not be confident that we have the disease contained. This is particularly the case given that we really have no idea as to how the disease got here.
If Mycoplasma is found to be endemic in New Zealand, then it will not be the death knell of the industry. But it will be a big nuisance. And we will undoubtedly need to implement some of the dairy hygiene measures that are typically seen overseas but which are largely ignored in New Zealand. In particular, farmers will need to think carefully about sending their young stock off-farm for grazing with young stock from other farms. Feeding raw (non-pasteurised) milk to calves will also need to be eliminated. Purchased bulls are another potential source of disease transfer.
Two neighbouring properties are now in lock down because of ‘suspicious’ tests:
However, the farms have not tested positive for the disease, but the ministry said the test results from one of the farms was “suspicious”. . .
Geoff Gwyn from the Ministry for Primary Industries said as a precaution it put restricted place notices on both the properties, and expected a confirmed test result by the end of the week.
The disease was identified on two other farms several weeks ago and now their is concern about two more. These farmers and their neighbours will now be very nervous.
It would allay one of their fears, and make it much more likely any other farmers with concerns would notify MPI, if there was certainty over fair compensation for loss of stock and income.
Mycoplasma bovis doesn’t infect people and it isn’t nearly as serious as Foot and Mouth disease. But it needs to be taken very seriously.
That includes dealing with the farmers sensitively and fairly and giving them clear and full information on compensation.