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Keith Woodford casts an eye over the latest Mycoplasma bovis report and finds no one is any closer to the specifics of identifying how the disease got to New Zealand

Keith Woodford casts an eye over the latest Mycoplasma bovis report and finds no one is any closer to the specifics of identifying how the disease got to New Zealand

By Keith Woodford*

The Mycoplasma bovis Technical Advisory Group (TAG), in its latest report released on Wednesday, has made a judgement that eradication of the disease remains feasible. As such, the national eradication program will undoubtedly continue.

However, within its report the TAG adds major caveats as to whether or not ‘biological freedom’ from the organism will indeed be achieved. The caveats are “that the number of undetected infected herds is not large, infection has not established and spread within the non-dairy sector, and that the rate of transmission to new herds is reduced via continued shortening in the intervals from infection to application of movement controls”.

The report also acknowledges that bulk milk testing has led to infections being found outside the prior tracing network. This highlights concern that tracing networks are incomplete, and the consequent uncertainty that exists around the number of undetected infected herds.

The bare facts of the situation are that in the 27 months leading up to 25 October 2019 there have been 201 farm properties declared infected. These properties have now either had their herds slaughtered or are in the process thereof.

This number now exceeds the projected number of 192 herds needing to be slaughtered over a ten-year period, as estimated back in May 2018 when Government approved the eradication campaign.

As of 25 October 2019, there are another 297 properties under notice of direction (NOD) which prevents sale of stock except with a special permit to slaughter. 

Historically, the ratio of NOD farms that are subsequently confirmed positive has been around 15 percent, with 201 so far confirmed positive and 1154 released from restrictions having been deemed to be free of the organism.  

However, the criteria for NOD has changed somewhat over time so some caution is appropriate as to how many of the current NODs will be confirmed positive. MPI’s current map of NOD farms on their website says that ’70 - 80% return negative’. If this is correct, then conversely somewhere between 20% and 30% can be expected to be confirmed positive. This does seem high. It would mean 60 to 90 of these current NOD properties will go positive over coming months and require herd slaughter.

In addition, there are another 337 farms under active surveillance with blood testing.  Only a small number of these are expected to be confirmed positive.

Of course, these numbers are not the end of the line. Each week there are new farms that enter the pipeline and either become surveillance farms or become NOD.

As an example, I am currently communicating with two farmers with close to 3000 dairy animals that are transitioning from NOD to confirmed positive. The source is unknown so the fan of infections from these farms and the timeframe thereof is also unknown.

The other big unknown is the extent to which it may have got into the New Zealand beef herd. We know that it has been found on more than 100 beef farms but the vast majority of these have been dairy beef.

MPI is currently taking monthly bulk milk samples from all dairy farms and testing with a bulk-milk ELISA for antibodies. This is an initial screening test which does not prove presence of the organism, but it does identify farms that then need to be blood tested.

Bulk-milk ELISA testing is a relatively new weapon in the MPI armoury that has come into play in the last 15 months.

It is the bulk-milk ELISA testing, together with early results of their latest modelling, that gives MPI some confidence that it is now catching up with the spread of the disease within the dairy herds.  However, the TAG says it needs to see more evidence for this.

A key point in the TAG report is the need to get further information on beef herds. Unfortunately, the bulk milk test is no use for beef herds because there is no bulk milk to test. It is therefore crucial to any success of the program that the beef breeding herds are not currently infected.

A quick check back for the last four months suggests that there are still lots of herds going positive. There have been 25 new farms declared infected in those 17 weeks. There have been eight new infected herds in the last four weeks.

There have also been increasing levels of infection detected in the North Island, with 51 North Island farms in total having been declared infected. Northland with 19 infected farms and Waikato with 10 have become the North Island hotspots.

Despite the TAG considering that eradication remains feasible, their caveats are major. A key problem is the lack of a screening test for both beef cattle and young dairy cattle. This makes it very hard to know where to go searching for the needles in the haystack.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Mycoplasma bovis is the small number of farms with clinical cases. I still know of only two farms where cows have become sick, including the original identified case back in July 2017. Most of the time Mycoplasma bovis stays a silent sleeper.

Although present in all countries except Norway, I find very few overseas farmers know anything about Mycoplasma bovis. Typically, it only shows its presence when there are other stress conditions present.

Compensation is now proceeding more smoothly than previously but some people are still getting badly stuck in the system. MPI statistics include partial payments of invoices, and there are lots of farmers struggling with cash flow.

There are also lots of tragic stories out there with family breakdowns, loss of farms and worse. Most people want to keep those things private and so it stays below the public radar. Despite being away from the glare of publicity, these issues are very real and, in some cases, all-consuming for those who are affected.

The TAG remains of the view, based on genetic modelling, that the organism arrived here no earlier than December 2015. My own investigations of the transmission pathways indicate this is only possible if there were multiple strikes from a single source of semen.

This possibility is acknowledged by the TAG, that it could have arrived on three or four farms. It means that MPI’s notion of a single index farm is likely to be false.

No one is any closer to the specifics of identifying how the disease got here.

The TAG members are largely located outside New Zealand and I am advised that this year they have communicated electronically rather than in person. This current report has been under development for more than four months. 

The Government relies heavily on the TAG in relation to ongoing strategy. Given that the TAG is recommending that its next meeting should be in the second quarter of calendar 2020, then unless something fundamental changes, the program will now remain in place for at least the best part of another year.

*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. He can be contacted at  Previous articles can be found at

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Thanks for the update Keith, I’ve just had a week looking at dairy farms in Germany and nobody had any idea what M Bovis was. But most had foot baths to clean your boots in and most only fed pasteurised milk to their calves and all calves were isolated in individual calf hutches until final weaning when they were grouped together. This was all done to prevent disease transfer ( which looked like they did very well as we saw no signs of disease in any of the 6000 odd animals we saw close up.
This confirmed to me nz is wasting its time trying to beat M Bovis and should simply learn to live with it!

Grumpy, Your observations align with my own observations in Europe , USA and parts of South America. My reading of the NZ situation is that 'feasible'is the antithesis of 'infeasible'. It's one or the other. And having got into the current situation the Government will now continue on the current track unless or until the TAG says it is 'infeasible'.
Alternatively, at some time in the future the TAG may say that although eradication is still feasible the Government needs to assess whether the costs are simply too high.

Cause and Effect in action Keith. Accordingly, I'm interested in how MB has finally led to a far more rigorous enforcement of NAIT protocols in an attempt to head off the seemingly endless 'midnight stocksales' the likes of which seem to happen on my neighbours property with alarming frequency.... Not only does it move unregistered and possibly infected animals its also eroding the tax revenue base of the sector, somewhat irresponsibly too I might add. Not unlike the rural equivalent of a tradie's cash job.....tsk tsk...I wonder what Soyamon Bridges would have to say about that sort of criminal behaviour in light of his recent tirade against organised crime?

So how many animals are you talking 4th? Its incredibly difficult to do a cashy of any reasonable value. Fact is one beef animal is a lot of meat. So most have to go through proper channels. Perhaps we should be looking at the home gardener then? How dare they not pay tax on the food they grow.
Keith I am sad to hear this ridiculousness is to continue. One can imagine the pollies dont want another failed initiative on their books. I fully believe these experts would have been massaged into a positive response to continue.

no, I disagree, see my response further down this column.

I am in agreement with Belle that cash sales relate primarily to individual animals. I think almost all farmers are trying to comply with NAIT but it is not an easy beast for farmers to get 100 percent right and there are ongoing problems with loss of tags, animals which simply disappear (they do genuinely die) etc. It would be close to impossible to shift significant numbers of animals around the country without leaving an evidential trail. However, there is a broad range of reasons as to how inaccuracies still occur within the NAIT system.

and oh the MONEY

Money that could have been spend on schools hospital etc. How much has been blown, past the billion mark by now?

I don't understand how no one knows how to run an Animal ID system. Just need a good phone app, scanner on phone, scan dead animal then take picture, or sold animal scan on phone with app. Easy as , all done on phone all in real time, outside coverage you can store info until wifi coverage. Tags need to be able to be supplied by numerous makers, eventually some guy will make a decent tag that doesn't fall off %10-20 of my cattle.

Yes my phone does everything under the sun, surely with the right software it would read a tag. God knows its pinned to my body all daylight hours. What the hell is it about a NAIT tag thats so blardy hard. I bought a trutest reader. The software is rubbish. Ah well back to Springsteen and some overdue cleaning.

It would be Interesting to see the total compo payout thus far, Keith, plus your back-of-envelope assessment of the likely total liability assuming the continuing percentage infection you estimate. And an average per head of stock. I rather suspect that such a total's not going to look great compared to the original budget. But as other commenters have said, the whole debacle is probably gonna end up as a lump under the carpet until November 2020, and the PR spin will continue to be 'Let's Do This'.... plus there's another Budget to drop in May 2020 where the over-run, suitably obfuscated, can be funded.

Waymad, I am struggling to estimate costs so far. Compenstion paid out is just over $100 million, but some of the payments are partial and there are some big ones (multi million dollar) stuck in the system. Compensation payments are well under half the total cost of the program. My estimate is that if the program stopped tomorrow (and it won't) then costs including 'winding up costs' would be of the order of $400 million, perhaps more. If correct, or at least in the ballpark, then expenditure is stll well south of the 10-year $886 million cost that Goevernemnt estimated back in May 2018. Since the surge (April 2019), there has been a big increase in staff numbers involved, so costs will be roaring along currently. I would need to do an OIA to get a more accurate idea as to where we are at, but even then the trick is to identify all the hidden categories.

Thanks, Keith. Yes, final costs will be obfuscated by being spread thin and wide over many activities/functions/financial years, and we may never know the final real cost. And as next year hosts an election, there will be a lot of pressure on to keep up the happy-clappy narrative, and to minimise the apparent cost. But, and of course, the real costs are being borne by the farming community: wrecked cashflows, strained or exploded relationships, loss of the farm itself, and the saddest cost - the suicides.

Sorry Keith but I disagree and point out that earlier in the year the farming sector was in fact in the media spotlight over undocumented cash sales of animals between farms which fall foul of several basic requirements of anyone in business not least the tracability of animals. Like it or not the farming sector is highly likely guilty of causing the outbreaks through precisely those poor business practices as much as poor husbandry itself. Likewise, the PSA outbreak in kiwifruit maywell in time be linked back to the long rumoured acts of unlicenced budwood being smuggled into NZ and or distributed among growers in an illegal fashion, plenty of which has been identified and some actual prosecutions metted out. Of course in both cases the bad behaviour within the sectors is rewarded by large infusions of taxpayer funds and the root cause is conveniently papered over....

"This highlights concern that tracing networks are incomplete"

Lets cut to the chase Keith.
How much of this ongoing steaming pile of affected cattle can be laid at the feet of farmers reluctance to use NAIT properly (" its too difficult to use / pop never had to use it...) plus MPIs failure to penalize non use - almost 0 penalties imposed prior to this outbreak, no doubt due to Ministers instruction and the smalltown nature of MPI/rural relationships?

And the taxpayer has to pay for the cleanup and the current govt is blamed for all the difficulties- get real.

I'd be really surprised if you were to say you've ever used NAIT. It's a dog, looks and works like computing from the 90s, totally unfit for purpose and it's coupled to a tag system that's also unfit for purpose.

Smalltown, My judgement is that non compliance has had very little to do with the issue. Apart from NAIT, there have always been alternative ways to track down movement of animal groups. Farmers have records, truck companies have records, and there are AHD forms and MINDA records. In practice what we have seen is that farmers who went under NOD very quickly alerted other farmers they had been trading with, but these farmers then had to wait many months before MPI followed up on those leads which were also provided to them. On occasions the delay as recently documented officially has been more than a year. And for the last two years this has gone close to driving some of us crazy with frustration. Fortunately, those delays are now less. But even now, the delays are considerable. For example, just yesterday I became aware of a farm that has just gone RP in the last two days with this being the consequence of a bulk-milk positive back in the autumn. Because of testing delays and paperwork it has taken six months. That is better than it was but not good enough. It is only next week that MPI will start on the forward traces, as the EDIR has yet to be done. Also, the farmer is very angry for, among other things, officials who do not follow their own quarantine and biosecurity rules when they visit him. There is fault on all sides, but to claim that farmer non compliance has been a driving issue is in my opinion political 'mis-statement' which has then been promulgated widely in the media.

I am with redcows. The NAIT software is garbage. I am reasonably technologically proficient. But NAIT and the bits and bobs that go with it is diabolical. I bought some cattle the other day. Some ended up heading to a different farm. The nait numbers came through, I phoned NAIT to distinguish who went where. I had the names of the owners on my tb cards. They couldnt help. FFS. So I have to read some of them on my reader that is a piece of shite and hope I get the numbers right which I will transcribe and hopefully find on my records and move to the other farm. There has to be about 20 numbers in each nait number which makes transcribing a lot of fun.
Yes there were dairy farmers out there not tagging calves and selling them without there nait records. But in the midst of working 24/7, I get it. Calving time on a dairy farm is unrelenting. And if you aint never done it you aint got no idea how awful it can be. Paperwork/computer work is not on the forefront of anyones mind. Survival is.
As a calf rearer it annoyed me I struggled to get tags from farmers. But I did always get them in the finish. And I felt they were doing me a favour....its a lot easier to bobby them. Most were corporate farms, the people doing the calf rearing didnt earn any more for selling calves to me. If anything the guys in the shiny offices didnt give a rats about NAIT. The culture comes from the top.
The poor blardy workers were slaving day and night. Underpaid and overworked. Why should they care when it was as obvious as hell their bosses didnt give care about them.
There is an underclass in dairy farming. Those that do the work and those that watch the underclass do the work.
4th estate and Smalltown I think you have no idea just what rural NZ is about now. Helen Clark and John Key oversaw a massive change in land ownership. Look to Queen St, foreign ownership and Maori Trusts.

Indeed, Belle. Some of the comments simply parrot urban farm-hate memes, and it's obvious that the knowledge of actual farming routines and farm company configurations is close to zero.