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Mycoplasma bovis: do we need to go so fast and should the North and South Islands be managed separately?

Mycoplasma bovis: do we need to go so fast and should the North and South Islands be managed separately?

By Keith Woodford*

This is a copy of a letter sent to the Minister of Agriculture.

Honourable Damien O’Connor
Minister of Agriculture

25 May 2018

Greetings Damien

Mycoplasma bovis

I am writing this to you because of the huge decision that Government has to make on Monday. It is an open letter, because there are issues which all New Zealanders need to be informed of.

In a perfect world, we would all hope for eradication of Mycoplasma bovis. But the world is not perfect, and there are no good solutions. Unfortunately, there are real risks that an ongoing policy of eradication is one where the medicine is worse than the disease.

I have been following developments since the first the identification of an infection, this being the Tainui property owned by the Van Leeuwen Group and share-farmed by Mary and Sarel Potgieter. I contacted the Van Leeuwens at that time, and I have written about Mycoplasma on six occasions since then, and I have also been interviewed by various radio programmes. 

I am in contact with the Potgieters (and have their claim documents). I am also in contact with quite some number of the farmers with IPs (Infected Properties) and NODs (suspected properties), who typically contact me because they feel their voices are not to being heard.  These emails come through at all hours of the night, which is indicative of the stress these people are under. 

So as there is no misunderstanding, I confirm that I am not paid by anyone with a direct involvement in the Mycoplasma outcomes.

Damien, I think the South Island perspectives are quite different than in the North Island.

It is now ten months since the disease was identified in the South Island. During that time awareness has spread throughout the rural community, as the IPs and NODs have spread, and the human stress has extended with it.  As one farmer said to me yesterday when he rang, when he goes to the country rugby on a Saturday afternoon, the other farmers no longer talk to him about either the weather or the rugby itself; they all want to talk about Mycoplasma bovis.  By contrast, in the North Island farmers are only now starting to recognise that it could be their problem as well as someone else’s problem.

If Government does decide to go forward with ongoing eradication, then it is essential that Government recognises the logistical and human issues. To put it bluntly, the performance to date of MPI and their contractors in the South Island gives no confidence.

I will give some examples, but only identifying farmers who have previously identified themselves publicly.

Frank and Diane Peters watched the last of their spring calving herd depart to the works this morning for compulsory slaughter. None of those 870 animals was diseased, but they did have one individual animal that had a positive PCR reading and some low-level antibody readings. As to where the Mycoplasma bovis organism came from, the Peters NAIT records (which are complete) show three shipments of cows from the Zeestraten Southland farm way back in April 2014, and then four Hereford bulls from Nelson in 2015.  There is no reason to suspect these Hereford bulls. Nothing else has come onto the farm. So, there is no other obvious way that exposure to Mycoplasma bovis occurred except from Southland in 2014.

The situation of the Peters herd raises profound issues. The first is that MPI is only acknowledging presence of the disease in New Zealand back to the end of 2015. And even this acknowledgement has been long delayed, whereas to those of us close to the action the earlier entry of the disease has been obvious for many months.  The reason it has been apparent to us is that it is the only conclusion that makes sense, given the circumstantial evidence we have been seeing on multiple farms.

If the disease was with us way back in 2014 (or earlier) then there is an awful lot of tracing still to occur.

The second issue is why, if Mycoplasma is such a terrible disease, have the Peters had no clinical cases. 

Just yesterday, I was also talking to a veterinarian with ten years of veterinary experience dealing with Mycoplasma bovis in the USA, and now some ten years of experience here in New Zealand. He believes he saw Mycoplasma bovis in New Zealand on a clients’ property when he first arrived, but could not get any laboratory to test to confirm his diagnosis.

In regard to when it arrived, this organism is a simple organism that has been living in the upper respiratory tract and the urogenital tract of cattle for many thousands of years. Most of the time it has no effect on healthy cattle, but occasionally it sees an opportunity to make its presence felt in animals which for one reason or another have limited immunity. What some vets are now saying to me is that it may well have been here hiding away since cattle were first brought to New Zealand nearly 200 years ago. Or it may have come in with shipments of cattle any time over the 200 years thereafter.

Consistent with the above hypothesis, it is not surprising that the bulk milk tests have been showing ‘all clear’, including cases such as the Peters whose herds were tested three times without any positives. Indeed, they have a certificate from Fonterra that their milk was clean. But once a detailed search for the needles in the haystack takes place, then yes, on occasions they can indeed be found. And if we tested all New Zealand’s herds at the level of scrutiny that the suspect herds are being tested, then we might find a lot more cases, particularly of antibodies in healthy animals.

It is important to note that MPI is still trying to deal with the claims for loss of income from the first identified herd at Tainui farm in South Canterbury.  Mary Potgieter has confirmed to me this morning that so far, they have only received approximately $3500 for some incidental expenses, which even then MPI quibbled over. As for loss of income, they have received “not a cent”.   

Independently of that, I was advised by the Van Leeuwens just two days ago that they have now received substantial but still partial compensation for the animals themselves, but nothing for loss of income. Their bank will not lend them further sums to purchase new animals, and they have to manage this from their own greatly diminished cash flows.

Clearly, there is a difference of situation between what the farmers are saying they are receiving and the message that MPI has been giving to the public, although I do note that the MPI spokesperson did admit last night that he did not actually know if any payments had been made for loss of income.

I have some sympathy for the MPI staff trying to deal with loss of income claims as they are indeed complex. All of these claims have to verify what would have happened without the disease, rather than what did happen with the disease. But if MPI is still trying to deal with claims from the first identified property, then what is going to happen when the claims start flowing from the close to 300 properties who have NODs and which are now having their businesses disrupted? There is already going to be a tsunami of claims, and all will be complex. And if the current eradication policy continues, an even bigger tsunami is going to follow.

I know of some farms that were placed in lockdown with NODs but have now had those revoked. As it stands, those farmers are eligible for business disruption compensation for the period of the NOD but are not eligible for compensation beyond the date of NOD revocation. But the effect of these NODs is that their business is greatly damaged, for example graziers have lost their contracts to raise young animals, with no other animals now available to them.

There is another farmer I am aware of who has more than 1000 rising one-year bulls. I am told that his farm has tested clear some three times, and there is no longer a lockdown in place. But knowing the history of these animals, no-one is going to take the risk to buy them. And the farmer himself has no feed to get these animals through the winter. So, they too will need to be slaughtered. These are just specific examples of a common situation.

The biggest area of stress currently would seem to be Mid Canterbury, although Southlanders might dispute that.  Everybody is scared, not so much of the disease itself, but of the effect of MPI finding the disease and ordering an eradication. These people can only see ahead of them the destruction of their lives.

A key issue going forward has to be the capability of MPI to handle the logistics. Yesterday I was talking to yet another farmer, who is still a NOD, but where the suspect trace animals left for the North Island before the first identified outbreak. The location of these animals, now in Northland, is known. However, testing remains incomplete some ten months since they travelled north, and six months after the forward traces were identified.

I could write a great deal more, but here I will cut to the chase. It may be time to consider whether the North island and the South Island should be considered separately.

Many months ago, you voiced the possibility of using Cook Strait as a natural barrier, but presumably you were talked out of that. Maybe it is still possible to use Cook Strait as a barrier, and to eradicate the organism in the North Island with a slaughter program, although I must admit my scepticism given the delays that have occurred.

However, here in the South Island, there is a desperate need for some breathing space. There is a desperate need to get information as to the proportion of suspect properties that are likely to be confirmed positive. And in the meantime, there is no major biosecurity risk associated with allowing supposedly infected herds to continue to be farmed. With appropriate biosecurity in place, they could be milked through the next season, allowing for much more structured and planned actions to then take place, with much less business disruption.

We also need to reflect on why it is that Mycoplasma bovis is not a notifiable disease in other parts of the world. Rather, farmers just get on with the job of managing it. The messages that I am hearing are that vets and also many farmers in these countries, including in Australia where the disease is endemic, are absolutely puzzled at the panic we have got ourselves into.

In the past, here in New Zealand we have run very successful programs for eradication of brucellosis and bovine leucosis.  With TB, we have also had great success, despite some great challenges. We also have further challenges in front of us, including Johne’s disease, which is surely more of an issue than Mycoplasma bovis. But have we now lost our perspective? Have we recognised the incredible difficulty with eradicating Mycoplasma bovis, which no-one has ever done on a national scale, and for which our diagnostic tests are so flawed?

My final message is that farmers are telling me that if the eradication program is to continue, then they want to know the expert information on which this decision is being based. At a meeting yesterday, I heard an industry official say ‘we have to trust the Government experts’. That perspective was not well received, given the performance to date.

I am available to discuss further at any time.


Keith Woodford
Principal Consultant, AgriFood Systems Ltd
Hon. Professor, Lincoln University

*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 You can contact him directly here.

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Hi keith, I have seen several petitions going around trying to stop what farmers are seeing as a needless kill of perfectly healthy animals.
I talked to a vet in Devon last year and she told me there is no issue managing the bacteria on dairy farms. However there are also some horror stories in the UK papers.
I take it the strain we have is not too bad or the farmers who have had it for the last four years would be telling us.

So I support you 100x

I think the severity of our strain relative to other strains is still an open question.
But Tainui farm is the only farm that I know of with a severe outbreak in adult cows.
I know of many farms where there are no symptoms despite having MB-positive cows.
There have been significant losses in calves in Southland but they all seem to be linked to the use of non pasteurised 'hospital cow milk'. That practice needs to change.

KW. I do hope the Cabinet takes your advice, and quits the 'we know best' and 'one size fits all' reaction.

But this situation has been mismanaged for so long that the usual tribalisms have surrounded it:

  • Urban vs rural
  • Green/organic vs current farming practice
  • 'Gubmint Experts' vs on-the-spot practitioners
  • Business nous vs bureaucrats

We can hope for the best, along the lines you suggest.

But we should prepare for the worst.

And the economic effects have not even started to be forecast, plus one can easily foresee a generation's worth of rural mistrust of Gubmint.

My understanding is we have two practices not seen overseas on any scale which can be sumarised as Gypsy day and Sharemilking.
Until these practices are eliminated how can we look overseas and claim M.bovis is manageable?
If we want to continue these practices, as well as general disregard for tracking, my vote would be erradication.

The issues around Gypsy day have been overstated. They are significant but manageable. The sharemilking issues relate to herd-owning sharemilkers but not to lower order sharemilkers (where the farmer owns the cows).
Many of the big issues relate to calf rearers who are raising male animals for the beef market and those practices need to change regardless of whether the official policy is slaughter or containment.
Whether or not there is overall more animal movement between farms in NZ compared to say the UK or Ireland I cannot say with any confidence, but I do recall that when the UK had foot and mouth some years back that it became evident that pastoral farming over there had characteristics in common with a 'bed and breakfast' industry were animals were moving around properties at a great rate of knots.
The key question with eradication is whether it is feasible, for this particular disease and with the tools that we have, without slaughtering large numbers of herds. As the Biosecurity Chief said to the Parliamentary Committee, we can eradicate the disease as long as slaughter of the national herd is an option. I call that the 'nuclear option'.
Keith W

Lets not get all alarmist pws, As an employer of herd owning sharemilkers it is not our intention to stop employing them in the future. We have been told at our bovis meeting sunlight and water will kill it. It is cow to cow contact and the feeding of milk from infected cows to calves, that spread it.
Already I am hearing from farmers that are sending their cows out to grazing they are requiring stock trucks to be cleaned before picking up the first load of cows, and that this is being adhered to according to the farmers I have had contact with.

According to MPI it's been in NZ for years, yet it has only come to notice now. Other countries live with it, why destroy generations of breeding in a whole herd cull because one cow in that herd has tested positive to it? They don't do that with TB (and admittedly like bovis, those tests are not the most reliable).

My understanding is that animals killed at the works can be positively identified as having the disease - or not - by checking their tonsils. I wonder if MPI are requiring the works to do tonsil checks of all animals and keep records of the numbers of animals killed v numbers that are positive.

If the incursion of bovis was recent - last 12 months or so, eradication would make a more robust argument. But when it has been here for four years at least........

It is cow to cow contact and the feeding of milk from infected cows to calves, that spread it.

Anyone here know why the milk from infected cows transfers the bacteria to other cows, but not to humans?

There are many different species of Mycoplasma Kate, found in humans, birds, animals and the environment. Most are species specific, which means they can only affect one species and cross infection doesn't occur.

I understand that bit, but what I'm just wondering is whether we humans who drink milk from infected cows are being exposed to the bacteria or whether the process of pasteurisation actually kills off the bacteria.

Off shore farmers heat their calf milk to kill it off Kate

I read the comments on this site - and reply when I think it is useful to do so - but on Stuff I don't even bother to read what commenters write.
The main message I take from those huge number of comments for Garners article is how ignorant most commenters on Stuff seem to be in relation to the facts of the situation, and what that says about democracies. I am reminded of Winston Churchill's statement along the line of 'democracies are a terrible form of Government, it is just that all the alternatives are even worse'.
But you are right; real care is indeed needed.
Keith W

comment on that link caught my attention

Willy Leferink
This decease came a long time ago and very few cows are actually affected by the decease. The cows in NZ are not as naive to this decease as those that make the current decisions make it out to be. I can not live with the pressures MPI will put on us if eradication continues and only corporate farming may have the stamina as they are not so emotional attached to the animals and can deal with the tedious bullying compensation process

I did a bit of digging and it's looks like MPI are seriously underfunded, not a vote catcher in an election year.

Orwell wrote,

I saw great battle reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the hero of imaginary victories; I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw in fact history being rewritten not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various "party lines"

Someone also said deer are very susceptible. It's on the trademe message board

Good on you Keith. Well put.

I know nothing about MB and I can only begin to imagine the trauma that these farmers are going through.
I do however have first hand experience of how how utterly incompetent that MPI are at dealing with this sort of incursion through an infection of Myrtle Rust on ours and our neighbours properties.
Our neighbour called MPI because they had Myrtle rust on their Ramarama hedge. A few days later, after a few tries at getting them to look at a photo, they sent a couple of people who suited up like spacemen who took a sample back to Auckland for analysis. About a week later their contractors sprayed a fixative for the rust spores and removed the hedge. 12 days elapsed between notification and removal. 12 days during the windiest time of the year in which the spores must have been blowing freely into the environment. To me the photo that we sent should have been sufficient identify it and certainly an educated first hand observation should have been more than sufficient.
A month or so later not surprisingly we went through the same experience ourselves and if anything they were even more slow (nearer 3 weeks).
If they were serious in trying to remove the disease, the corrective measures should have followed inside a day. Laboratory analysis and identification is a plodding methodical approach, but not appropriate to a situation that requires a faster strategic response.
This situation is more like war. Their approach in a war situation would be something like this:-
Hello I think that might be an enemy soldier over there. - OK we will get somebody on to it.
Hello I rang yesterday about an enemy soldier - Ok we will send some intelligence officers down tomorrow to take some photos for a positive identification.
My word yes, you are right they do look like enemy soldiers. Ill just get these photos back to the boffins for a positive identification.
A week latter, you were right those are enemy soldiers, we will just have our legal team draw up papers authorising them to be shot.
Two days later. Our legal blokes pulled out all the stops and we are good to go. What's that - there is only two of you left alive. Oh well chin up old chap reinforcements will be there tomorrow.
Tomorrow was too late we were shoot that night.
I don't know what those head office boffins are on about, I cant see any enemy soldiers. Plenty of our own chaps. Pity they are all dead............

......What's that you say. You think you have spotted some enemy soldiers. Funny you should say that we had similar reports recently in an area not far from there, but by the time our military chaps got there we could not find them. Oh well we will send down an intelligence team tomorrow, - or the next day perhaps - bit snowed under at the moment - seem to be getting reports from all over the place ................

Seriously I think that whoever is managing MPI needs to be releaved of their duties and consigned to somewhere safe like a laboratory and replaced with people more suited to strategic battle planning and a sense of urgency. Perhaps a few of our best military people may be more suitable.

Funny you should make these observations. My experience has been as follows. A forward traced animal was acquired in august last year. We were notified a month ago. Since then the farm we bought this animal from has had about 100 or more cattle sold through the local saleyards. Like myrtle rust blowing in the wind to all four corners of NZ. The likelihood of containing is zilch. As their is zilch urgency from MPI.

About a week later their contractors sprayed a fixative for the rust spores and removed the hedge.

Just curious - can the fixative be purchased over-the-counter? I'm not sure why with that problem, we'd be waiting for MPI folks to come along and do the work - I can't imagine they'd have the number of staff available to do that. Seems more sensible to me if they put in place a system of confirmation via photo ID and let the owners get on with taking out the infected flora themselves.

I think that they use concrete sealer. At that stage you could not touch it. They were the "experts". They use contractors to do the removal.
Just an added note about that concrete sealer. Carefully check the safe handling procedures. I seem to remember that some of that class of chemicals can be very nasty.

you would like to think if that was possible, when you first make contact they would tell you what to buy and spray to kill it on the spot.
i know they like a live sample for identification and there lies the problem, without the resources time becomes an issue.
the main problem is we are a HUGE importing nation and less than 1 % gets inspected at the border so we are reactionary and need to be ready to react quickly to stop any spreading of any pest

Uncertainty and distrust is what I hear, mixed judiciously with"she,ll be right mate"
Sad really..
Never mind.

Ok, a chaotic dairy industry is safe and acceptable to all including MPI who say they have a continency plan for Foot and Mouth outbreak that they review frequently.
Have all the farmers, vets,all other affected peoples, had input into this plan and is it a public document frequently discussed, readily available?
If so that may engender some confidence.

Some years ago I attended a meeting at which the then minister of ag spoke at. A few days before he had attended a 'practice F & M outbreak response'. We were told the country would have all ag trade suspended, the North & South islands would be closed to stock movement between them and, culling would be affected immediately of infected stock.

One potential positive to come from m bovis is that when a F & M outbreak does occur then the political egos from MPI/ag industires/agencies involved should have gone by the board. I believe that has been one of the issues here. MPI simply don't have the staff that understands farming systems and were slow to accept that they didn't know everything and accept assistance from industry bodies. It has also made all parties aware that due to the interreliance of the beef and dairy industry when something like this happens it will never be a dairy only issue and all players need to get involved.

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