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 http://keithwoodford.wordpress.com. You can contact him directly here.