Keith Woodford describes how anger is mounting again amongst Mycoplasma bovis farmers and how some are in dire trouble. The official information flow lacks transparency as to what is really happening

Keith Woodford describes how anger is mounting again amongst Mycoplasma bovis farmers and how some are in dire trouble. The official information flow lacks transparency as to what is really happening

By Keith Woodford*

Anyone reading the official information from MPI would be entitled to believe that the Mycoplasma bovis eradication campaign was going remarkably well. However, among the directly afflicted farmers, things remain far from sweet.

MPI has acknowledged that afflicted farmers have taken a hit on behalf of the industry, but as one greatly afflicted farmer said recently to me, this is the only team that he has been part of where he, as a team member, gets left behind.

I know of three farmers who have had to put their farms up for sale due to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak and its implications.  There are others heading that way. I have yet to meet an afflicted farmer who does not feel hard done by.

Personnel changes prior to Christmas at the top level within MPI gave considerable hope amongst afflicted farmers. There have indeed been some changes for the better. But all is not well.

On the positive side, farmers are now being treated with more respect than previously. Also, there has been increasing recognition that the speed of compensation needs to increase. There is also increasing recognition that some of the initial judgements around compensation might have been less than fair. But there is still a long way to go.

Afflicted farmers are indeed being left behind by the team.

At a meeting with afflicted farmers prior to Xmas, I voiced the need to prioritise, and to focus on the most important issues. I suggested that compensation issues need to be placed at the forefront.

However, it was immediately made clear to me that for many farmers, even ahead of compensation, was the need for respect and transparency. They felt they were being treated like criminals.

Although I see improvements in relation to respect, I don’t see much improvement in transparency. I see individual case managers going out of their way to be helpful, but I also see these same case managers scared that they will be in trouble if the information they are providing gets back to higher levels.

In recent weeks, I am seeing a new build-up of anger because the official weekly reports from MPI do not reflect what the farmers themselves are seeing down at ground level.

The MPI information system is still driven by the need to provide a positive spin. For example, when the number of NOD farms decreased before Christmas, then MPI highlighted that fact. However, when the number of NOD farms rose again in recent weeks, MPI said nothing about this.

In recent weeks MPI has stopped any mention of new farms going IP (infected property). To get this information, readers have to compare the latest table with previously published tables.

Since mid-December there have been 12 new IPs in a period of nine weeks. There are 30 additional farms that are RP (hence, very high risk, and well on the journey to IP). That is a record number. There is also a slew of new farms that have just gone NOD (i.e. significant risk), with Southland a new hotspot.

MPI keeps offering soothing words about new IPs being expected, and that they are the result of known traces. What MPI has been less forthcoming about is the number of traces that are back-traces.

To explain the difference, a forward trace occurs when an infected farm is known to have supplied animals to other farms. Typically, these forward traces involve considerable probability of leading to a new case of infection.

In contrast, a backward trace occurs when MPI is investigating how Mycoplasma bovis could have got to a particular property.  MPI does this by back-tracing to all farms that have supplied stock to the newly identified infected property.

Often there are lots of these potential back-traces, and most of these are considered low risk. But every so often one or more of those supposed low-risk properties goes positive. That then raises the question as to how did it get to that source property.

Every time a back-trace goes positive, that in itself also sets up a raft of both new forward-traces and new back-traces. In each of these cases, MPI is starting behind the eight ball, with Mycoplasma bovis having got a running start which can be of two or more years.

As a consequence, the confidence that MPI has generated in the broader public about the program being under control is built on shaky foundations.

MPI’s response is that they are taking the advice of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG).  However, most of the TAG are international folk reliant on empirical information supplied to them by MPI.  Also, none of the experts have experience of a Mycoplasma bovis eradication campaign. For everyone, it continues to be a journey into the unknown

Also, the latest TAG report only covers the situation to early December. A lot has already happened since then.

I would very much like to see the papers given to the TAG.

There are also issues relating to MPI’s reclassification of infection categories.

For example, MPI now uses an additional category called a ‘transitional NOD’ (notice of direction). These are farms that are in the process of going from a NOD (significant risk) to an RP (restricted place, seeking final confirmation of the infection) and IP (confirmed infected property).  Earlier, they would have gone straight to either RP or IP. Farms also go into this category having been confirmed as infected while MPI figures out whether partial depopulation might suffice.

Partial depopulation is another can of worms. Such farms remain as ‘outcast farms’ that other farmers do not want to deal with thereafter.  

There are also examples where properties have been released from their NOD status but have subsequently gone IP. I know of two such examples and another well on that journey. Out of the hundreds of cleared properties, how many more were false clearances?

I also know of one property which had an ELISA-positive rate of 20 percent and this was from a large number of heifers. However, in subsequent tests the percentage dropped back to around five percent and the farm was eventually declared by MPI as free from disease. That would seem to have been a very brave decision. Those young animals are now part of a big milking herd on another farm, where the farmer is oblivious to the risk.

To put that issue in perspective, most infected herds show no clinical signs. Rather, the antibodies decline over time and the animals stop shedding. However, when a subsequent stress event takes place, then the lurking Mycoplasma bovis organisms emerge again. Even then, in most cases it will shed and spread but show no clinical signs.

On the compensation side, MPI has now received 726 compensation claims to 15 February 2019.  The average time to payment is now about three months, with 12 to 20 claims typically receiving either full or partial payment each week.  Simple claims, typically of modest size, are paid quickly. Big complex payments are getting totally stuck.

And so I say again, the burden is not being shared fairly. Team members - that is, afflicted farmers - are getting left behind.


*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. His articles are archived at http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.

13 Comments

Sounds like "socialise the losses" I wouldnt mind so much if for some decades I hadn't had to listen Natioanl voting farmers whining about those on benefits etc, all the while of course getting a tax free payout on retirement.

So steven, you are a believer of 'the sins of the fathers should always be visited upon their sons' or in this case an entire industry's participants? Some of these farmers will be young farmers. What a bitter person you must be to hold such a grudge against all farmers.
Tax free payout on retirement - I presume you mean selling their business? Tax rules that apply to farmers selling their farms apply to all business owners.

Having just finished reading Anne Applebaums 'Red Famine' - dealing with the centrally-directed, deliberate Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, and the subsequent denial and cover-up, seeing your article raises uncomfortable comparisons.

In the Ukrainian case, all those on the ground including officials in the lower ranks were well aware of the famine, and reported it as such. But central officials, and especially Stalin, ignored, denied, obfuscated, and diverted attention away. It was a 'local problem, caused by troublesome kulaks'. In MPI's case, you are describing something worryingly analogous. The Narrative must be preserved at all costs. And those costs are human, financial, and borne by those at the bottom of the food chain.

And it's yet another case, talking about compensation, where salaried officials, whose remuneration and reimbursements arrive with the certainty of sunrise, simply cannot comprehend the Time=Money equation.....or the need to make financial decisions under uncertainty (e.g. of valuations and of opportunity costs.)

Yes Keith, it is impossible to know the state of the bovis epidemic. MPI does not give meaningful information or figures. What it does give us is massaged statements full of gloss and glamour on what a marvellous job they are doing.
A question for MPI, What is the current number of contact properties? By May last year it was over 5000. What has the number got up to now?
Is it 10000?
Keith, I read somewhere last week MPI admitting two animals imported from Oz in 2004 were positive for mbovis. Do you know anything about these animals and how it fits in to the testing regime? I thought this was significant news but I havn't read any follow up stories.

Belle
The 2004 animal was a Dexter cattle beast and it died of pneumonia. The tissue has only now been confirmed as Mycoplasma bovis positive. It is assumed ( rightly or wrongly) that the disease died out along with the animal. There has been another case in 2015 but no details have been provided.
Anything else I might state about the relevance of these cases would therefore be speculation. However, I do observe that the presence of these cases does seem to further damage MPI credibility. As you may be aware, I have taken quite some flak from MPI for suggesting that the disease might have been here before December 2015.
The latest TAG report does note that there has been minimal surveillance of beef herds. In some quarters there is a belief it may well have been present in beef herds for some time, and there is some circumstantial evidence in support of that. The reality is that we simply do not know.
As for the number of traces, MPI has not advised as to that number.
KeithW

Thanks Keith but are you left wondering like me about this '2004' animal? That was 15 years ago! Did it just die recently? How long ago was it tested for bovis? It just doesnt make much sense. And then this other animal....the mind is currently confused and horrified. So we have two cases unrelated to this current outbreak/importation. That we know about. How did they find these others? Will they find more? And why hasn't the media jumped on this. We are spending millions on killing healthy animals, on the assertion the disease wasnt here there and everywhere. Suddenly its dropped on us that it has also come in from Oz. Twice. But no detail. They are treating us like the veritable mushroom. Feeding us shit and keeping us in the dark.

Great update thanks Keith, have you got any thoughts or info on how this spat NZ has with China is affecting Fonterra?? Theyve gone very quite on the issue which would suggest theyve got problems...........

Grumpy,
I am trying, along with many others, to decipher what is going on in relation to China.
I observe as follows:
1) Anything that David Mahon says I listen to carefully. I always value his insights on China and he is easily the most experienced of the Kiwi China watchers having lived there for about 35 years.
2) The NZ Strategic Defence Statement last July was surely seen as offensive from a China perspective
3) The lack of invitations for NZ Ministers to visit Beijing does provide a signal - and a very clear one.
4) The border issues are quite likely unrelated. Overall, products are flowing well, with big quantities of WMP and lamb in particular.
5) Winston Peters' dinner invitation from the Chinese Ambassador does not imply that the Chinese are happy about things. Subtle but important messages will be passed at that dinner.
6) The Huawei issue will be pivotal, not because of the trade issue itself, but because of the messages it sends about the broader geopolitics.
7) When two big elephants decide to fight, it can be the little mouse that gets trodden underfoot.
8) Switzerland is a remarkable and insightful example of what independence means.
9) We are at the crossroads
KeithW

We wait...............

Keith. I sympathise with farmers who became infected before the outbreak became well known and understood.
However I have zero sympathy for farmers and their agents who purchased from suspect areas because they could buy - particularly weaner freisian bulls - for $50 or $100 less than locally. Farmers up here in Northland were either knowingly taking the risk for financial gain or they were being treated dishonestly by their stock agents who were using the shortcomings of the NAIT system by parking the animals in Waikato long enough to become the point of origin. These guys in fact deserve a criminal conviction but our rules on traceability have too much grey area to wiggle out of responsibility. At least two of these farms are within walking distance of our farm..

Wilco
I know of no farmer who ignored known risks.
I am less happy with some agents.
KeithW

Keith. Unit loads of weaners were still being bought up to Northland from Southland well after Bovis was detected and warnings around stock movements were being publicised. Forward tracing is confirming this fact. To their credit the larger agencies withdrew but a number of independent agents continued. The next step in this sorry saga was the reported "fudging" of origination of calves to keep the business going. The latest "line" being quoted is that buying calves from Southland is very safe as their stock management protocols in place now make any chance of Bovis almost impossible. Sadly I hear some farmers are buying into this bollocks.

There have been two infected farms identified in Northland so far.. Both bought in either weaner or yearling freisian bulls from down south.
And both farms had independent agents sourcing cattle for them.