By Keith Woodford*
Last week I was in Wellington speaking to Federated Farmers Dairy Council. It gave me an opportunity to assess persistent rumours that Government and MPI were losing confidence in relation to the Mycoplasma eradication battle.
However, I heard both Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters and Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor say that they remain resolute in their determination to eradicate the disease. Whether or not public positions and private concerns coincide could still be another matter.
Everything I heard reinforced my concern that there is a gulf between the information MPI is providing Government and the realities of the situation.
Currently, the major battle ground is in the South Island, although that may well change in the future. The Mycoplasma bovis stealth bombers have travelled widely, well embedded in calves.
Farming attitudes also vary according to location. Many of those who are well away from the action are fervent supporters of eradication. But those farmers who are in the thick of it are feeling a mix of fear, anger, frustration, despondency, scepticism and battle fatigue.
The crucial issue remains: how long has Mycoplasma bovis been here?
MPI is still sticking to the notion it arrived around two years ago at the start of 2016 or the end of 2015. Their only apparent evidence for this is theoretical calculations using the genetic clock. I have written of this previously.
In contrast, I am relying much more heavily on information from farmers and other industry people. These people are contacting me to tell what they know. Some are prepared to talk to MPI and have tried to do so, but they feel that their information goes into a black hole. Others are too scared to go near MPI because they don’t trust the compensation system, they are not comfortable dealing with bureaucracies, and they certainly don’t want to raise their heads above the parapet.
For some months I have been trying to alert decision makers to the strong likelihood that Mycoplasma bovis has been here since at least 2014 and the implications of this for the eradication campaign.
As time goes by, I find the evidence continues to build for early arrival by at least early 2014. In recent weeks, I am also getting stronger indications that Mycoplasma bovis was in New Zealand from at least 2008. There is also some intriguing evidence that it may even have been here several years before that – with the initial outbreak possibly being in the North Island. Or perhaps that was a different outbreak.
First looking back just to 2014, there is one farmer who has been saying to me that with hindsight, he now strongly suspects that he had a Mycoplasma outbreak back in both 2014 and 2015. He says that as a graduate in applied science he has been taught to be careful on such matters and not to claim anything without evidence. However, having spent several hours talking to this farmer – who is no longer on this particular property – I am well over 90% sure that he had Mycoplasma bovis.
Unfortunately, the heifers from this property were raised together with the heifers from a considerable number of other properties, before being returned to the parent farms as rising two-year-olds. From there, infection will have fanned out via male calves born in 2016, 2017 and 2018, which were sold for rearing up and down the length of the country.
Another industry person has come to me outlining a situation back in 2008 where there was a major outbreak of uncontrollable mastitis and lameness in a mob of cows that now, with hindsight, has all the distinctive characteristics of Mycoplasma bovis. For reasons which I won’t go into here, there are good records of how these animals were shifted from Canterbury to Otago, where the mastitis and other conditions suddenly flared up, and how the survivors were then sold south into Southland.
This was well before the advent of NAIT, but it is possible to draw a trail of where these animals travelled. It seems there are links through to the Zeestratens, which could mean they were not the original source.
There are other stories that I know, but where disclosing the information publicly would make the farmers identifiable and I do not have permission to do that.
For many months, I have been aware of a historically pervasive health condition in calves in the South Auckland district that goes back the best part of 20 years. The condition could not be diagnosed at the time as any known disease, so was called ’droopy ear’. The possibility this was Mycoplasma bovis was canvassed but supposedly it could not be correct – after all, we all supposedly knew there was no Mycoplasma bovis in New Zealand. The condition was written up in Proceedings of the New Zealand Veterinary Association in 2013, and several years earlier in a rural lifestyle magazine.
An American-trained vet with considerable experience with Mycoplasma bovis tells me that when he started practising in New Zealand some ten years ago he made a tentative diagnosis of Mycoplasma bovis in some New Zealand animals. However, there was no laboratory here with the expertise to confirm or deny that it was Mycoplasma bovis.
A number of industry leaders have said to me that their support for the eradication program is a consequence of the recommendation of the technical Advisory Group (TAG) who are seen as the experts. However, I don’t believe the TAG ever provided any recommendation. Rather, what they voted on was the more restricted question as to whether or not eradication was technically feasible.
Back in May of this year, and using information available to them as at 10 May, four members of the TAG said that eradication was in their opinion not technically feasible, and six said it was technically feasible. But the six added various caveats including that they were operating with big information gaps. They also noted that the investigation focus had been on forward tracing rather than also undertaking back tracing.
The TAG emphasised that this was going to be an eight to ten-year war, and that battle fatigue and ongoing resources would be important. Additional caveats were redacted from the report, which was only released last week.
More generally, the messages that I keep getting by phone and email are indicating that MPI is still ‘building the plane while flying it’. And we all know what that means. I am also hearing that the MPI and AsureQuality staff within the system are more than a little stressed by having to travel blind without efficient organisational systems.
It seems that MPI is so busy that it does not have time to adequately check out the alternative infection scenarios and timelines. As such, with almost exclusive focus on forward tracing, and over 3000 farms to trace, everything supposedly still links back to the Zeestratens farms in Southland. But not everyone in MPI is convinced about this ‘company line’.
There are now more than 3000 farms with direct and indirect traces back to the Zeestraten farms. Given these trace farms are where MPI is looking, then that is where they are finding the disease. But even then, some of those links are very tenuous. These links may or may not be how the disease got here, and there lies the nub of the problem.
*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.