Intrusive, impractical and inhumane

23/06/2021

A University of Otago study shows MPI’s treatment of farmers whose herds were infected with Mycoplasma bovis was intrusive, impractical and inhumane:

A poorly managed government response to the 2017 Mycoplasma bovis outbreak inflicted significant and lasting trauma on farmers whose stock was culled, a University of Otago study has found.

Extensive interviews with affected farmers in Southland and Otago revealed the enduring emotional cost of a “badly planned and poorly executed process”, leaving farming families feeling isolated, bewildered, and powerless. Others in the rural community, such as local veterinarians, were left feeling their expertise was undervalued and their potential to positively contribute to the management of the outbreak disregarded.

Rural New Zealand is home to about 700,000 people, making it New Zealand’s second largest city, with farming contributing significantly to the economic wellbeing of rural communities and regions, and to the national economy. Nationally, an estimated 180,000 animals were culled on more than 250 farms, which were locked down under strict conditions, in a bid to eradicate the disease. Farmers were paid compensation for lost stock but this was often perceived as inadequate and onerous to secure.

The rational for compensation is that it encourages farmers to report suspected infections. Without compensation, or with poor management of it, the temptation to hide or kill infected animals would be too great for many. MPI’s guiding principle for this is that farmers should be left no better and no worse than they were before the disease struck, which is fair if that’s what happens in practice.

Measuring the human cost of this process was the focus of the Otago study, which was carried out by Dr Fiona Doolan-Noble, Dr Geoff Noller and Associate Professor Chrys Jaye, of the University of Otago’s Department of General Practice and Rural Health.

Study lead, Dr Doolan-Noble says that for her and Dr Noller it was heart wrenching listening to the accounts told by farmers in particular, but also the veterinarians and front-line workers. . . 

A dominant theme of the research was the intrusive, impractical and inhumane nature of the Ministry for Primary Industries’ (MPI) eradication programme in which local knowledge, expertise and pragmatism were ignored in favour of inefficient bureaucratic processes which made no sense to farmers.

Intrusive, impractical and inhumane – that’s very strong criticism.

“Looking back, I can see I went through a series of emotional phases … The initial one was shock. Second phase I think was probably a panic … Third one was trying to think, ‘Jesus, this is very overwhelming.’ And then I got to [the] phase, ‘Okay, we’re stuck in this, how are we going to get out’?” one farmer told the research team.

Farmers described the damage to their sense of identity and the forced separation from typical farming practices and seasonal rhythms as they transitioned into an incursion management process overseen by an ill-prepared government agency.

An ill-prepared government agency sounds unfortunately familiar.

Once a Notice of Direction (NoD) was issued for a property, farming families effectively lost control of the running of their farm while remaining responsible for the welfare of their remaining stock.

“It says in the notice, in the NoD [biosecurity notice] that we are responsible for everything on the property. So, we’re responsible for the health and wellbeing of all the animals on the property, even though there’s people making decisions for us,” one farmer said.

This situation was compounded by poor communication, lack of clarity about animal testing regimes, delays in providing results, indecision regarding stock management, authoritarian and at times brutal decision-making concerning herd culls, and the ignoring of practical solutions to on-farm problems.

“Farming’s like a great big wheel … and they [MPI] cut a chunk of that wheel out and it collapses. Then it takes years to get that wheel back to that size again… It just breaks farmers down, losing control like that,” a farmer said.

One dairy farmer described how a slaughter team arrived early and started killing cows while he was still in the milking shed.

“So [MPI] decided to start killing them on the farm. And I said, ‘Look, that’s a bit rough’. But they said, ‘No, that’s what’s going to happen’. So, this truck arrives, from this pet food outfit…this guy pulls up and just shoots 10 of them, in the yard. Cuts their throats …I come [out] there, there was hysterics, there were staff crying. I just said to the guy, ‘You can’t do this. This is just heartless’.”

A family of beef farmers who experienced a total cull were impacted by slow MPI decision making, resulting in their farm over-wintering too many cattle during a very wet season: “…the animal welfare of the animals was not good at all…Because they were on very small pads in mud up to their haunches… we had two or three pass away on our pad because the conditions were so rough.”

Another farmer recounted how MPI officials insisted on following the mandated process of decontaminating a shed at a cost of $150,000 when he could have had it rebuilt for $70,000. On another farm a cleaning team was paid to sit at a table dipping individual screws into disinfectant and scrubbing them clean with a wire brush when the cost of brand new screws was negligible.

What on earth rationale was behind such stupidity?

One farmer said he had quit the land because of the impact of the elimination programme and further said he could not remember the birth of a child because of the stress at the time.

The study participants noted that farming was a 24/7 business but MPI officials were unavailable at weekends or over holiday periods. However, they didn’t necessarily blame MPI staff.

“In MPI, there’s a lot of people really, really trying. And they’re just getting caught up by red tape,” one farmer noted.

The researchers were guided by a stakeholder panel with farmer, veterinarian, local business, (human) health professional, rural organisation, agribusiness and MPI representation, and oversight was provided by a governance group comprising a Māori representative, a public health expert, an ethicist, a retired veterinarian and a farming consultant.

They noted another disease incursion was inevitable and that solutions need to be sought from within rural communities and then integrated into the relevant bureaucratic processes.

They propose:

  • The development of a regional interprofessional body to develop pragmatic approaches to future incursions
  • Genuine local engagement to seek solutions from the ground up
  • The formation of a nationwide ‘standing army’ of rural-based experts who can be called on to help shape the response to the next incursion

“One of MPI’s key principles in terms of biosecurity is fair restoration – ‘no better or worse’. We believe this should not just apply to the financial impact on farmers but should be applied to both the mental health of all involved, and also the social wellbeing of rural communities.”

Sally Rae reports on the heartless and devastating intrusion::

In the wake of a University of Otago study on the impact of the Mycoplasma bovisoutbreak on Southern families  – with a dominant theme of  the “intrusive, impractical and inhumane” nature of the Ministry for Primary Industries’ eradication programme – business and rural editor Sally Rae tells the story of a North Otago family caught up in it.

Rob Borst will never forget the scene that greeted him when he turned up at his North Otago dairy shed 15 minutes too late.
With Mycoplasma bovis declared on Mr Borst’s large-scale dairy farming operation in 2018, he had cows with mastitis – one of the symptoms of the disease – that the Ministry for Primary Industries ruled could not be sent to the meat works.

The cows were not unsound and Mr Borst felt they could still be killed at the works, but MPI decided they should be killed on-farm, despite his concerns.

Many of his staff had been with him a long time and had personal connections with the herd. Concerned about the effect on them, Mr Borst intended ensuring they were away when it happened.

He was supposed to meet a representative from a pet food business at the shed, but he turned up 15 minutes early and Mr Borst was out on the farm. He arrived to find 10 cows had been shot, their throats cut and his staff crying.

“I just said to the guy, ‘You can’t do this. This is just heartless’.

“There was hysteria. The rest of the cows got upset. The staff were beside themselves. And then we had to deal with the repercussions of the blocked up effluent systems because all the blood coagulated.

Farmers and their staff milk their cows twice a day.  Many are the results of years of careful breeding and they get to know them well. Having to cull them would be bad enough. Shooting them beside the rest of the herd while the staff watched was cruel and insensitive to the people and animals.

“I rang MPI and said, ‘Look no more, that’s got to stop’. He was told MPI had the option of bringing police in to enforce it.

“So I basically said, ‘… if you’re going to go down that track, there’ll be cameras there to show what’s going on here.’ And I finally got them to back off.”

That, Mr Borst, acknowledges was probably the lowest point in his dealings with the disease and MPI. It was also when he phoned then response head Geoff Gwyn and told him they would not continue with the cull.

He and his wife Sylvia then started to “finally get a bit of understanding”.

“He [Gwyn] brought down three other quite senior people in MPI. And it was my opportunity to … lay it out to them.

“They probably didn’t realise what it’s really like, down on the face. The coal face of dealing with this. These are guys that sit in Wellington, quite high up in MPI, and I made it as real as I could.”

One MPI staffer he felt was “quite arrogant about the situation” when sitting in their home.

“He didn’t even think he should be down here, talking or listening to a farmer.

If a few more people from Wellington got down on the farm they might understand the impact their policies and procedures have on real people and stock.

“I pointed out we were fighting for our whole livelihood, because farming is a career. I wanted to be a farmer when I was in primary school. I never faltered and I’ll be a farmer for the rest of my life.”

“The other thing [is] it’s our home. We live on the farm. It’s not like we turn off at five o’clock and jump in the car and head home. We live it, 24 hours a day and I don’t think they understood that. So we were fighting for our home as well.”

After that conversation, Mr Borst said the process got “a lot better and a lot clearer” and he felt there was much improved understanding and respect, from both sides, about finding a way forward. . . 

The Borsts found out their stock had the disease at the busiest time of the year.

“This was in the middle of calving, the busiest time of year, [I was ] probably overworked, quite stressed, then having to deal with that, it took a lot to take in for starters,” he said.

He went through various phases; initially shock, then panic – wondering how their business would survive – then trying to get an understanding of what was going on, because things were happening beyond his control, and finally, putting a date on when they would get to the end point and get back operating where they needed to be.

“Once I got to that phase, I think I probably became more pragmatic about things. I was more accepting of what needed to happen and then probably focused on trying to make things happen to get us to that point. But it was a difficult period to go through all those phases.”

They got their vet, Kevin Kearney, from Oamaru’s Veterinary Centre, on board. He attended many of the 30-odd meetings the Borsts had on farm with MPI. He was a “god-saver” and helped them to challenge MPI at times “because MPI were making some very poor decisions at that stage”.

During those early meetings, some of the people MPI had fronting them were “probably out of their depth” and he did not think there was clear enough direction from “higher up” about the process.

“I think they [MPI] were terribly poor at the beginning, shockingly poor actually to be fair … they were disorganised, they were ill-prepared and they were terrible at working with farmers.”

But Mr Borst acknowledged the ministry got much better very quickly. . . 

That fast improvement gives some reassurance that MPI learned from its mistakes.

“I look at it as something’s happened in my farming life and I hope I never have that experience again … I just look at it as just an experience and it was tough, but we got through it. We’re out the other side and we’re looking forward.”

As for MPI, he believed the ministry was a lot better for it – “not that you ever want to go through it again but, if we had another something terrible to go through, I think they are certainly much better prepared for it, going down the track.”

MPI plans to add to lessons learned from this experience:

The Mycoplasma bovis eradication programme has been through significant reviews and, with what has been learnt along the way, substantial improvements have been made, programme director Stuart Anderson says.

The aim was to lessen the impact on affected farmers “as much as we can, while we work to eradicate this disease”. . . 

“We know that the M. bovis eradication effort has been challenging for the farmers involved, and even when the process goes as intended and by the book, it is tough for those affected by movement restrictions and directions to cull their animals.

“We and our partners, Dairy NZ and Beef and Lamb NZ, are continuing to work hard to support the wellbeing and recovery of those impacted by M. bovis, including getting through the process and compensation claims paid as quickly as possible,” he said.

The eradication of the disease had been one of the most significant biosecurity challenges faced in New Zealand. Allowing it to spread would have resulted in an estimated $1.3 billion in lost productivity in the country’s “vital” cattle sectors in the first 10 years alone.

“It would have left farmers trying to manage the disease at significant cost and with major changes to the way we farm cattle in New Zealand required to manage the risk.

“This is why Government and industry are investing $870 million over 10 years to achieve eradication,” he said.

Eradication of Mycoplasma bovis had never been attempted before and building the programme from scratch had not been without substantial challenges.

The effect on farmers, their families and workers could not be underestimated – “it’s been tough, particularly so in the early years”.

A review being carried out now sought to assess what could be learnt from what was New Zealand’s largest biosecurity response to date, Mr Anderson said.

Three years on from the joint decision by the Government and the farming industry to attempt to eradicate the disease from New Zealand, the response was “well on track”.

Of the 267 properties confirmed with Mycoplasma bovis, as at June 17, 2021, there were only six active confirmed (currently infected) properties, many of which would be cleaned and cleared, on their way to back to farming as usual over the coming weeks.

“While eradicating M. bovis from New Zealand has been a massive challenge, we are tracking well to success and we are confident that working in partnership with industry and farmers on the ground, will see New Zealand farmers able to farm free from this disease in the future.”

The programme was run with a philosophy of continuous improvement and learning. . . 

MPI deserves credit for the eradication programme being well on the way to success and for learning from mistakes.

The risk of other diseases coming in is real and being better prepared for the next one is essential.

In an interview with Jamie Mackay on The Country yesterday, Sally Rae made the point that not being prepared for M. bovis was bad enough, being ill-prepared for something even more serious, like Foot and Mouth disease would be disastrous, not just for farmers and their stock but the whole economy.


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