NZ Farmer - New Zealand could achieve world first by eradicating Mycoplasma

Written by Gerard Hutching

No country has ever eradicated Mycoplasma bovis, but they have never really tried, Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says.

The Government is widely expected to opt for an eradication approach to tackle the cattle disease which has shaken the rural sector since being detected last year.

Despite the lack of precedent for ridding any country of the disease before now, "members of the technical advisory group regard it as feasible," O'Connor said.

He is preparing a paper canvassing both eradication and long-term management of the disease (containment) for Monday's Cabinet meeting.

O'Connor warned people not to take advantage of the situation.

"I'm hearing charges for grazing and feed are being ramped up. That's unfortunate given situations where farmers have to manage their herd under a notice of direction, or even shift their herd with the impending feed shortage across winter."

The main reasons in favour of eradication were the cost to a farmer of trying to manage it; farmers could continue with the flexible systems farmers they had always enjoyed, such as the movement of animals; and New Zealand could prove it could eradicate a disease.

Whatever option is decided, the long term cost of either will be about $1 billion, and potentially there will be a 10 per cent loss of production.

"In the United Kingdom where they've had M. bovis for a long time they have managed the impacts down to 1-2 per cent in some cases, but they don't run the intensive and large scale dairy operations that we do. That seems to have a direct influence on the disease," O'Connor said.

Massey University associate Professor of animal health Richard Laven said he regarded eradication as "doable", if infected animals could be identified, although affected farmers would have to cull their entire herds.

He estimated about 240 dairy farms out of more than 12,000 might have the disease, so it was not a great number. Movements of animals to sheep and beef farms would also have to be stopped.

Laven said when the UK joined the European Union in the 1970s, M. bovis arrived in Ireland from Germany after animals were allowed to cross borders. There had been no concerted effort to eradicate the disease.

Chief veterinary officer for the NZ Veterinary Association, Dr Helen Beattie, said eradicating was the best solution from a vet's point of view but acknowledged it would come at a financial and personal cost to some farmers.

Ashburton dairy farmer Frank Peters said it was a crime his healthy calves were going off to slaughter days before the Government made a call on how to deal with the disease. Tests showed just one of his cows with M. bovis.

"Why do we cull these cows when there's more information to be gained from leaving them? What are we learning about the disease?"

O'Connor said if the Government went down the eradication path, more cattle than the 22,300 already announced would have to be culled.

"There have been many people crying out for the culling of just individually-infected animals but that's virtually impossible to do. Identification of those animals with certainty is virtually impossible prior to their slaughter. Understandably people directly affected don't want to see healthy calves culled."

Farmers might not be able to continue with their more open systems but would have to raise their own replacement stock and limit animal movements.

"We're lucky to have access to AI [artificial insemination] which provides the best genetics. The use of bulls for tail end mating and the use of beef bulls across some herds for beef weaners will probably change."

The Mycoplasma incursion had shown up a marked difference in farming systems between the North and South Islands. In the south, farmers with heavy capital requirements had moved animals around and used off-farm grazing in the winter to maximise investment.  

O'Connor said the Government had appreciated the nearness of the June 1 Gypsy day deadline, but the difficulty of tracking and tracing animals has pushed it closer to that deadline than desirable.

On Gypsy day, dairy farmers and sharemilkers traditionally move herds around the country, before the start of the next season.

Asked if farmers who had not complied with the animal tracking system Nait - and therefore committed an illegal act - might not be eligible for compensation, O'Connor said this aspect had not been tested.

"It is an offence under the Nait Act [not to record]. In the Biosecurity Act, it says it's an offence if you have contributed illegally to the spread of the disease. We've committed to compensate farmers who cooperate with MPI, who understand the need for and value of undertaking instructions."

M. bovis was a worse disease to deal with than foot and mouth because it was hard for farmers to manage and difficult to test.

However, foot and mouth, which New Zealand has never had, would have a devastating impact on trade because countries would stop taking products.