Three new properties have been identified as being infected with the Mycoplasma bovis bacterial cattle disease, bringing the total to 17, but the Ministry of Primary Industries still believes eradication is possible.
“Eradication still remains our prefered option. We have containment at the moment of the infected places to prevent further onward spread. Our belief is that the infection hasn’t been in the country for a large number of years and eradication is still firmly on the table,” David Yard, MPI incident controller, told BusinessDesk. “Clearly if it had been established and been silently dormant for 10 years or so, spreading from animal to animal, we would find it on a lot more farms or herds,” he said.
It might not have been here for 10 years but it is possible the disease was in New Zealand before it was first identified last year.
It’s also probable that it has spread further than the 17 farms which have been identified so far.
Mycoplasma bovis was first confirmed in July on two farms in South Canterbury, marking New Zealand’s first official outbreak of a disease that is present in many other countries. While the disease presents no food safety risk, it can cause a range of symptoms in cattle including mastitis that doesn’t respond to treatment, pneumonia, arthritis and late-term abortions. There are now nine infected properties in South Canterbury, five in Southland, two in Ashburton and one in Hawkes Bay.
Given it was detected seven months ago, 17 confirmed farms is “not a huge number” when you look at the number of dairy and even beef farms across the country, Yard said. There are about 12,000 dairy herds in New Zealand but some farms will have more than one herd.
According to Yard, a national milk testing programme will help determine whether there are any other pockets of infection in the country. Under the testing regime – slated to start in February – every dairy farm will provide three milk samples, one from bulk milk and two from discarded milk unsuitable for collection, for example, from cows with mastitis.
Yard said the results should be ready by the end of March and “if we suddenly found that we have another 10 different pockets then that might change the ball game. We might say eradication is off the table and we are moving to containment or long-term management but that’s a very long bow to draw at the moment,” he said. . .
But what if beef cattle are infected? They won’t be identified through milk testing.
MPI’s Yard said the ministry is not “chasing the disease as it spreads” but rather the increased number of infected farms is a reflection of MPI’s tracing and testing: “We are actually picking out properties that were probably already infected and we just now know about them.”
However, MPI expects to find more. “We do logically expect that because of the severity of the disease, in some areas, particularly down in the Southland area, further properties because the animals were quite heavily infected and there are have been large number of movements of young susceptible animals,” he said.
In an earlier email Thursday MPI said “we expect that more properties will become positive as our tracing and testing programmes continue to ramp up. From one farm in Ashburton alone, we anticipate tracing some 30 additional properties.” Not all, however, are necessarily infected.
Yard also said MPI is progressing with compensating affected farmers but that there is a process to be followed. He declined to give a dollar figure but said “obviously the cost escalates on a day-to-day basis because every time we serve a notice, those people are entitled to compensation.”
While it is difficult to estimate the final amount “it’s going to be quite a large sum,” he said.
Farmers and sharemilkers with infected herd will have lost at least many 10s of thousands of dollars through the loss of stock and income.
Confirmation of the disease or concern about the potential for it has stymied the sale of stock for some farmers who rely on it for a considerable amount of their income.
The threat of the disease is causing a lot of stress for anyone with cattle and speculation over its origins isn’t helpful.
Federated Farmers National President Katie Milne says in the current circumstances “patience and a dose of realism” is required.
“Of course there is curiosity among farmers and the media as to how mycoplasma bovis started as it has never been detected before in New Zealand to our knowledge.
“This is a complex disease and there is a significant amount of resources going into testing and surveillance carried out by MPI and the industry.
“Farmers also have a role to play making sure traceability is up to scratch ensuring NAIT tagging and recording of all cattle and deer. We advise also an on-farm disinfecting policy, buffers on boundaries and quarantine of newly introduced stock to their properties.
“This should become part of a new best practice of making your farm a fortress when it comes to biosecurity,” says Katie.
Now that the disease has been identified on so many farms, every farmer with cattle, trucking firms and anyone else working or visiting farms must do everything possible to stop it spreading further.
The disease isn’t harmful to humans and milk and meat from infected animals is safe for consumption. But it compromises production and any ill health in stock also raises welfare issues.