Written by Heather Chalmers
Tractors were scrubbed with toothbrushes and several water blasters in constant use as two South Canterbury farms spent weeks cleaning themselves free of the Mycoplasma bovis infection.
The two neighbouring properties on Morris Road near Waimate, farmed by Paul and Pamela Snoxell and sharemilkers Leo Bensegues and Maite Fernandes celebrated being given the all-clear by the Ministry for Primary Industries on Monday by immediately restocking.
"We are back on track now," said Leo Bensegues, who was visited at his farm by the Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor in May.
The Bensegues were declared infected with M. bovis in October and the Snoxells in November, with both having their herds killed earlier this year.
Paul Snoxell said he cleaned every day from May 5 to June 20. "We would have three to four water blasters going all day. It was manual cleaning and it would take two to three days to clean a tractor. We were cleaning tractors with toothbrushes.
"For farmbikes, the wheels were taken off and the chassis cleaned.
"Everything was cleaned to a very high standard. MPI would audit us every few days and if something was not sufficiently clean, then it was cleaned again.
"The farm is immaculate."
At one stage eight backpackers helped out, but most of the work was done by Snoxell and his remaining staff member.
His herd of 787 cows and 253 calves was killed as part of a Government bid to rid New Zealand of M. bovis, despite none showing any sign of the disease. His herd had been in the top 2 per cent for somatic cell count, an indicator of good animal health, farm hygiene and milk quality. "I had a very healthy herd, with not a single sick cow."
The loss of 26 years of breeding had prompted a life-changing decision to no longer farm his own herd, but instead employ a 50-50 sharemilker. As the sharemilker had to buy cows in the North Island, these would start calving on July 10, compared with the usual date of August 6, so the all-clear had come just in time.
Farmers had to be honest if they had bought stock from an infected farm, or if they had sick cows, said Snoxell. "It's not up to MPI to follow every single trace. If you have a sick cow that doesn't respond to treatment then this needs to be checked by a vet, rather than just shooting it in the back paddock. Otherwise I have had 26 years of breeding killed for no reason." With no herd of his own to manage, Snoxell will help out on the Bensegues' farm for a month during calving.
In a phased eradication costing $886 million, the Government will cull about 150,000 cattle in an attempt to rid the country of M. bovis, a bacterial disease which can cause untreatable mastitis, abortion and arthritis in cows. The disease was harmless to humans and was not transmitted through meat or milk. According to MPI figures, 54 properties had been confirmed infected with M. bovis, with 13 of these decontaminated and able to be restocked.
Bensegues said 700 replacement cows bought two months ago, which had been grazing on the run-off, were being moved to the main farm following the all-clear. He also had another 200 heifers that were disease free. This was to replace the 950 cows and 222 yearlings killed in February. Compensation of $2 million had been paid.
From Argentina, Bensegues arrived in New Zealand in 2005 with only $700, working up the dairy career ladder to become a sharemilker in 2012, an arrangement where he owns and was responsible for milking the herd for the farm owner.
Bensegues said he was "quite fussy", so had opted to do his own farm cleaning, part of the decontamination process, even though a business was available to clean farms. "I wanted to be clean in one month and one week. That was my target. If I had used the other cleaners it would have been three months at least."
"My relationship with MPI has been great and I support everything they do. It was a little unorganised at the beginning, but it's been a big exercise." He supported the eradication programme.
An MPI spokesperson said that for an infected property to be declared free of disease all the cattle need to be removed (culled). Once this had happened a 60 day clock starts ticking during which time MPI works with the farmer to ensure the property was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. All equipment or materials that had come in contact with the animals (for example, bedding, fence posts and machinery) were cleaned and treated with disinfectant. Cleaning teams work with individual farms to assess exactly what needs to be cleaned and disinfected.
Once an infected property has been through its 60 day stand-down period, MPI will assess whether the properties' Restricted Place Notice (RPN) can be lifted. The completion of cleaning and disinfecting, and the stand-down period, did not automatically lead to the lifting of movement restrictions.
MPI contracts a third party to undertake the cleaning and disinfection process on affected farms. MPI had specifications stating which products were used and what special equipment their staff were required to wear during the cleaning and disinfection process. Farmers can clean and disinfect their own farms if they choose.
Mycoplasma bovis bacteria survive best in a cool damp environment and were readily killed by heat, desiccation and by most common disinfectants. Cleaning and disinfection relied on washing off excess organic matter, applying heat (hot water or steam) or lowering the pH using disinfectants and allowing the area to dry (where possible).
Detergents were often used to assist with removing dirt and organic material from surfaces.
Most commonly citric acid 0.2 per cent was used for disinfection against M. bovis. (1 teaspoon citric acid to 1 litre of water). Virkon (1 per cent) and Trigene were also acceptable disinfectants for use.