NZ Farmer - Axing calf days due to M bovis a step too far for some people

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Chris Lewis says Mycoplasma bovis caution shouldn't compromise school calf days, which promote strong biosecurity practice and bring rural communities together.

OPINION: The long shadow of Mycoplasma bovis is now darkening the prospects of a Kiwi rural tradition – school calf days.

There have been calls from some quarters to cancel them, given the money and effort being expended to stamp out the cattle bacterial disease.

The Ministry for Primary Industry's advice is that farmers may want to reconsider any movement of animals that is not absolutely business critical.

While MPI staff are neck-deep in the response operation, I understand that attitude but we may be being too cautious. Sure, if schools decide to go ahead with these much-anticipated events, extra precautions will need to be put in place.

But completely closing them down is squandering a chance to showcase strong biosecurity practice, not to mention the considerable benefits of camaraderie and farmer support that calf days entail.

Let's keep a bit of perspective.  Calf clubs are a low risk compared with the saleyards and other things that routinely happen on farm.

There's a risk and we have to manage it.  But it's by no means the biggest risk that happens every day up and down the country, with stock being brought and sold online and all those sorts of things.

It's a given that animals from farms under movement control or suspicion of exposure to M. bovis will be excluded – these animals can't move off farms.

For other calves, it's important that measures are put in place to prevent direct contact between them.

One option is to flip the animal pens around, so that the entrances face the trailers and parked vehicles.

Tie up all the calves by the trailers. The kids can go one by one to get their calf and bring them in, showing off their handling skills. Calves can remain tied up once they're inside the pen with enough space between them so they can't lick each other.  The judge could then visit each of the calves and hand out the prizes while they are tied up. 

There's a risk a big strong calf might pull a child off their feet and that means parents might have to be a bit more proactive, but that's not a bad thing.

Owners could bring their own drinking bucket and organisers could provide disinfection trays and brushes for boots. I am sure agrichemical companies will be falling over themselves to provide this for free.

All this should be discussed between the school and the community so that the whole community can decide what suits them.

I expect there will be some communities where this will be a step too far and that's fair enough.  We're not all the same.

One of the lessons we need to take on board from foot and mouth outbreaks in the UK is that communities get isolated, and how vital social interaction is for mental health.

Farmers are feeling under pressure as we deal with M bovis.  They need support.  Calf days are one of the biggest events on the school calendar, with entire communities turning out in force, and farming families catching up with friends and neighbours for a great day out.

Calves that get pampered are proudly shown off by the children.  With suitable precautions put in place, what better advertisement is there for strong animal welfare and biosecurity.

Farmers will bring the animals' ASD cards and National Animal Identification and Tracing (Nait) scheme compliance can be highlighted.  For example, OSPRI, vet clubs or individual farmers could bring a scanner, and scan the calves in and out.

It's a great chance to show those farmers who may be a little bit behind the times that Nait is essential, even for calf club days, and is not difficult.

Good communication and planning is needed by schools and communities which decide to hold a calf day.  MPI also has useful advice on minimising risk on its website.