By Keith Woodford*
Anyone reading the official information from MPI would be entitled to believe that the Mycoplasma bovis eradication campaign was going remarkably well. However, among the directly afflicted farmers, things remain far from sweet.
MPI has acknowledged that afflicted farmers have taken a hit on behalf of the industry, but as one greatly afflicted farmer said recently to me, this is the only team that he has been part of where he, as a team member, gets left behind.
I know of three farmers who have had to put their farms up for sale due to the Mycoplasma bovis outbreak and its implications. There are others heading that way. I have yet to meet an afflicted farmer who does not feel hard done by.
Personnel changes prior to Christmas at the top level within MPI gave considerable hope amongst afflicted farmers. There have indeed been some changes for the better. But all is not well.
On the positive side, farmers are now being treated with more respect than previously. Also, there has been increasing recognition that the speed of compensation needs to increase. There is also increasing recognition that some of the initial judgements around compensation might have been less than fair. But there is still a long way to go.
Afflicted farmers are indeed being left behind by the team.
At a meeting with afflicted farmers prior to Xmas, I voiced the need to prioritise, and to focus on the most important issues. I suggested that compensation issues need to be placed at the forefront.
However, it was immediately made clear to me that for many farmers, even ahead of compensation, was the need for respect and transparency. They felt they were being treated like criminals.
Although I see improvements in relation to respect, I don’t see much improvement in transparency. I see individual case managers going out of their way to be helpful, but I also see these same case managers scared that they will be in trouble if the information they are providing gets back to higher levels.
In recent weeks, I am seeing a new build-up of anger because the official weekly reports from MPI do not reflect what the farmers themselves are seeing down at ground level.
The MPI information system is still driven by the need to provide a positive spin. For example, when the number of NOD farms decreased before Christmas, then MPI highlighted that fact. However, when the number of NOD farms rose again in recent weeks, MPI said nothing about this.
In recent weeks MPI has stopped any mention of new farms going IP (infected property). To get this information, readers have to compare the latest table with previously published tables.
Since mid-December there have been 12 new IPs in a period of nine weeks. There are 30 additional farms that are RP (hence, very high risk, and well on the journey to IP). That is a record number. There is also a slew of new farms that have just gone NOD (i.e. significant risk), with Southland a new hotspot.
MPI keeps offering soothing words about new IPs being expected, and that they are the result of known traces. What MPI has been less forthcoming about is the number of traces that are back-traces.
To explain the difference, a forward trace occurs when an infected farm is known to have supplied animals to other farms. Typically, these forward traces involve considerable probability of leading to a new case of infection.
In contrast, a backward trace occurs when MPI is investigating how Mycoplasma bovis could have got to a particular property. MPI does this by back-tracing to all farms that have supplied stock to the newly identified infected property.
Often there are lots of these potential back-traces, and most of these are considered low risk. But every so often one or more of those supposed low-risk properties goes positive. That then raises the question as to how did it get to that source property.
Every time a back-trace goes positive, that in itself also sets up a raft of both new forward-traces and new back-traces. In each of these cases, MPI is starting behind the eight ball, with Mycoplasma bovis having got a running start which can be of two or more years.
As a consequence, the confidence that MPI has generated in the broader public about the program being under control is built on shaky foundations.
MPI’s response is that they are taking the advice of the Technical Advisory Group (TAG). However, most of the TAG are international folk reliant on empirical information supplied to them by MPI. Also, none of the experts have experience of a Mycoplasma bovis eradication campaign. For everyone, it continues to be a journey into the unknown
Also, the latest TAG report only covers the situation to early December. A lot has already happened since then.
I would very much like to see the papers given to the TAG.
There are also issues relating to MPI’s reclassification of infection categories.
For example, MPI now uses an additional category called a ‘transitional NOD’ (notice of direction). These are farms that are in the process of going from a NOD (significant risk) to an RP (restricted place, seeking final confirmation of the infection) and IP (confirmed infected property). Earlier, they would have gone straight to either RP or IP. Farms also go into this category having been confirmed as infected while MPI figures out whether partial depopulation might suffice.
Partial depopulation is another can of worms. Such farms remain as ‘outcast farms’ that other farmers do not want to deal with thereafter.
There are also examples where properties have been released from their NOD status but have subsequently gone IP. I know of two such examples and another well on that journey. Out of the hundreds of cleared properties, how many more were false clearances?
I also know of one property which had an ELISA-positive rate of 20 percent and this was from a large number of heifers. However, in subsequent tests the percentage dropped back to around five percent and the farm was eventually declared by MPI as free from disease. That would seem to have been a very brave decision. Those young animals are now part of a big milking herd on another farm, where the farmer is oblivious to the risk.
To put that issue in perspective, most infected herds show no clinical signs. Rather, the antibodies decline over time and the animals stop shedding. However, when a subsequent stress event takes place, then the lurking Mycoplasma bovis organisms emerge again. Even then, in most cases it will shed and spread but show no clinical signs.
On the compensation side, MPI has now received 726 compensation claims to 15 February 2019. The average time to payment is now about three months, with 12 to 20 claims typically receiving either full or partial payment each week. Simple claims, typically of modest size, are paid quickly. Big complex payments are getting totally stuck.
And so I say again, the burden is not being shared fairly. Team members - that is, afflicted farmers - are getting left behind.
*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.