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Keith Woodford explains how the complexities of Mycoplasma bovis eradication and compensation are causing great human stress

Keith Woodford explains how the complexities of Mycoplasma bovis eradication and compensation are causing great human stress

By Keith Woodford*

The complexities of Mycoplasma bovis compensation are causing much angst both for MPI and farmers. Simple claims are being dealt with in a matter of weeks. More complex cases get stuck. Unfortunately, most cases are complex.

The easiest cases for MPI should be where farmers have dairy beef.  Once the farms are ‘depopulated’, to use the official term, it is a painstaking but straight forward process of disinfection and then clearance some 60 days later.  Replacement dairy beef animals should be easy to find, although of course there is a risk of reinfection if bad choices are made. 

In practice, the depopulation is straight forward if sometimes brutal, but the compensation gets complicated. Dairy-beef animals are being slaughtered at times that the farmers had not intended, usually earlier but sometimes later due to slaughter-approval delays. Either way, there are complications around animal valuations and feed issues.

Where breeding animals are involved, then the complexity gets much greater. Also, there is a lot of emotion in farming families who love their cows which they have bred for so long.

For breeding herds, the compensation problems start with determining the cost of replacement animals.

This situation is exacerbated because most infected dairy herds to date have been large-framed Holstein Friesians with top-line imported European genetics. In all likelihood the association with breed simply reflects where the Mycoplasma stealth bombers first landed. From there they have spread to similar farms through sale and purchase of animals. Like-for-like replacements are increasingly hard to find.

With these previously infected properties, there is also a risk of the replacements being positive for Mycoplasma bovis. This has happened to at least two farmers, with the healthy purchased herds fortunately being identified as infected after the purchase but prior to physical transfer.

Some farmers have accepted the valuations of MPI’s agents so as to get quick payment, but others are holding out, or only agreeing to provisional payments with the right for reassessment once replacements are purchased.

Where there are disagreements it is helpful to have professional advisers involved. This lessens the risk of bullying. Also, many farmers are too stressed to undertake negotiations themselves. As to who will pay for this help, no-one seems to know, but it seems unlikely that MPI will pay.

Some farmers are also having difficulty in getting prompt payment for obvious costs such as the transport of replacement animals to their farms for restocking. I have seen recent MPI correspondence to one farmer, who was trying to expedite these payments, that MPI is “unable to commit to a timeframe” as to when these payments will be made.  This is unacceptable and inconsistent with earlier messaging from Minister O’Connor.

Loss of income claims are never easy. The challenge is that losses have to be verifiable.  It is easy to document what the income is now, but much harder to document what it would have been.

Signoffs require between four and six signatures coming from multiple ministries. Signoffs are required from bureaucrats who have no understanding of the specific realities.  No-one wants to make a mistake. A mistake could be fatal for career prospects.

Multiple cases have emerged of faulty animal tracing despite NAIT records being complete. The reasons for this are multiple, some being linked to weaknesses in the NAIT system, and some being weaknesses in the relationship between NAIT and MPI. 

One farmer, whose case I have been following, knew that MPI was barking up the wrong tree and that the animal trace movements had to be incorrect. MPI refused to discuss this with him. It was only through an Official information Act (OIA) request that he belatedly realised that the real animal movements were in the reverse direction to what MPI believed. That particular flaw was a key reason why some of us knew many months before MPI did that the earliest known infections were in Southland rather than Canterbury.

Several MPI and AsureQuality case managers have been trying to sort out tracing errors. But these case managers are nervous about trying to sort out the bureaucratic bungles. As one has said to me, he is resigned to being ‘depopulated’ from his job because of the problems he is creating for his superiors. He is not the only one.

Recently, I met late one evening with a farmer who has gone infection-positive despite no clinical signs of disease. I asked him how he was dealing with the stress. He told me that in six hours he would be back in the shed milking the death-sentence cows. He said by milking cows he keeps busy and this helps keep him sane. He hopes he can forestall eradication until the policy changes. The hardest job in the meantime is killing all the progeny calves at birth.  

Although there is a Rural Support Trust trying to assist farmers, in most cases the Trust members can do little. This is because they have no influence in regard to the fundamentals causing the stress. At least one farmer has already taken the ultimate step, with a Mycoplasma bovis notification being the apparent tipping point on top of other issues. There will be lots of post-traumatic stress disorder when this is all over.  

When farmers contact me their attitude ranges from extreme belligerence towards MPI to fateful resignation that they will ‘go under’. Across the spectrum, male and female, these farmers tell me they hate MPI.  One farmer said to me this morning “I love my cows but I now hate a lot of humans; I believe I have let my cows down”.

Most affected farmers would like both the wider industry and politicians to understand the stress they are all under. But they are also nervous about being identified. They are scared that if they are identified to MPI then their compensation claims will be placed on the ‘naughty chair’.

My own interpretation is that although there is bullying it is not sanctioned. Rather, when officials are themselves placed in stressful situations they tend to become dictatorial and arrogant. It is a defence mechanism by officials who lack the necessary skills.

Farmers keep asking me as to whether I have influence with MPI. I tell them I have zero influence. All I can do is place information in the public arena. However, MPI does hear what I say, although they do not like me speaking on such matters. 

At two recent industry seminars where MPI presented their standard Mycoplasma bovis powerpoints, and where I was presenting on totally unrelated topics, MPI put strong pressure on the organisers to ensure that I did not ask questions of their speaker.

In fact, I had no wish to ask questions because these officials can only present the ‘company line’. They have excellent communication skill but they do not have the technical knowledge to answer questions. They too are stressed.

My key message to Minster O’Connor is that what I have written here about human stress is just the tip of the iceberg.  Those members of the Technical Advisory Group who expressed concern about potential effects of stress and battle fatigue knew that this eradication war would not be over for many years.  Does the Government understand what they are in for?

*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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The poor buggers. It sounds like EQC and Southern Response all over again. "Bullying", "now hate a lot of humans", "no understanding of the specific realities", "unable to commit to a timeframe", "placed on the naughty chair" - all too familiar.

Keith, surely a suitable structure for mediation of claims (a CowBudsPerson??) could be rigged up, and an equivalent Expert Advice Panel drawn from sector accountants and other professionals outside the Gubmint, could be called in to adjudge valuations and loss-of-income.

The trouble with bureaucrats attempting any of this is twofold:

  1. They are the Enemy, so immediately an adversarial configuration emerges
  2. They have zero concept of Time=Munny, so are indifferent (and this is by design, else they could be accused as the old Fisheries crew were, of being in bed as regulators, with their regulatees) to the passage of time

It has to be external, Gubmint-funded, and professional....

Oh, and work Quickly, and to high published standards,

No more of the old adage 'Good enough for Gubmint work'....

I agree with you that this needs to be taken right away from MPI.
They will claim that they are getting outside experts to do the valuations, but these people then become their agents who depend on MPI for their next job.
It needs a truly independent body, as you suggest.
But I don't think it is going to happen.
So far I have only communicated the tip of the iceberg of the problems.
Keith W

A quick word from the oppressed. Surely we would be better to save this hoohaa for F&M. We dont want mbovis exhaustion to take hold then get F&M. Financially, mentally and physically this is draining for all. Personally I got through the NOD visit ok. Then I looked at the reality of managing a biosecure farm. Hmm bit of a joke. A property that had for 12 months farmed these animals, not biosecure. Now the vast majority of these animals are gone and it must be totally biosecure. There is the restricted bit. And the non restricted bit. And never the twain shall meet. Apparently. However minor details such as the fox terrier and the grandees threw the lovely Asurequality lass. Both have little concern for mpi boundaries. One of the grandees was very busy studying the heifers and writing down the ear tag numbers of the ones she likes. She is six. I started talking disease with her. Using the citric acid spray. Why nana. What happens if they have it nana? Oh they will kill them all Rubes......ahem....foot in mouth, tears, shock, no they wont um very unlikely um change of subject.
Up til last week for a year my ute drove all over the restricted area then came home and drove over my farm. Now I need a permit to drive from one side of the driveway to the other. If it really moved by tyre, we would be wasting our time. If not me then some other buggers would have transferred this bug everywhere by now cos until these restrictions were put in place vehicles had free movement everywhere.
So why these ridiculous restrictions. If vehicles and gumboots and dogs and sheep and grandchildren and pigs and tools can pass this bug along then passed along it will have been. If indeed I have mbovis on our little block, I had a whole year to transfer it to the home block or elsewhere.
So what is it MPI? If its that easy to catch a ride...we are too late by a long shot. If its not then give us a break. Farming under these silly restrictions is not conducive to good mental health.

I'm a townie now, but I grew up on 900 acres of backblocks sheep and beef under the Ruahines. Our thoughts are with you...

Thanks Grum but honestly our situation is really minor (so far) considering what is going on out there. Keiths article makes for grim and alarming reading.
Where do I start. I cant imagine having to put down the heifer calves from his cows. Who is doing this? If the farmer has to do it...well it would fair rip your guts out. He probably would usually sell the bull calves to rearers (seeing it seems to be engulfing the holstein friesian breed) so he would be killing those too.
Yes I can well imagine serious mental health issues arising. And what a good point Keith makes about the length of time the govt have now bought into.
Back to the calves. Who has to kill these calves? Does it rest on the dairy farmers head? Is he getting out the gun every day. Day after day? His valuable and georgeous little bubby replacement heifers. Then what...where do they go? Did he have to get a permit to get a digger in to dig a hole for this huge number of calves. How many....500? 1000? 1300? That there is a big hole. Does Mr farmer have to cart the bodies out to the hole and role them in? Listen to the thud as each hits the ones gone before? Day after day.
No-one has answers on how mbovis got here. So once all these animals have been killed there is NO certainty it wont reappear again.
However then Mr Farmer meets and greets his cows morning and night for milking. He has to touch them. All of them. Feel that warmth. And picture their death over and over again. Day after day.
And now the farm is dirty because its 'a restricted' place. Nothing really can move off there without a permit and cleaning and spraying. The unbelievable complexity of that last sentence I can only guess at. Imagine half a dozen staff, houses, children, dogs driveways....suddenly overnight this part restricted this part not. For months. The motorbike trip over the driveway...nup not anymore. The ...paddock dirty, driveway clean. All while managing calving cows, driving tractors, getting colostrum cows in with calves you are gona shoot. Argh!
Maybe I am just getting a bit old, grumpy and past it. But it all sounds rather exhausting and soul destroying. Is it worth it. There is little certainty of it working.

How can the Minister have confidence in MPI and confidence in the senior executive team of MPI.

AND how long can the Prime Minister have confidence in the Minister.

The MPI folk will continue unchecked until the Minister steps in. For the MPI folk will rationalise "if we weren't doing OK, the Minister would step in".

When government agencies do risk assessments, once human deaths are attrutuble, thats it for the agency leaders and the Minister.

No one is meant to die from Government policy.

4620 farm properties. This is the current (7th august) number of forward traced properties from infected properties of animal movements. I gather from late 2015.
What percentage is this of all cattle owning properties in NZ?
A testing scheme that is unreliable and cattle movements to nearly 5000 farms.
What if Keith is right and mbovis arrived before 2015. That 5000 then potentially is what?
I have heard the figure 60% reliabilty for the blood test bandied about. I have heard only a percentage of animals on farm are tested. I have heard not all forward contact farms are tested.
My schooling went far enough in maths/statistics to know this does not add up to eradication.

Days to the General Election: 26
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.