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BusinessMay 31, 2018

‘We were as low as you can get’: a dispatch from Mycoplasma bovis ground zero

We need to stop arguing about whether the government has made the right decision to cull more than 100,000 cows and get on with supporting those affected, says Gore farmer Bernadette Hunt.  

My husband Alistair I own 430 acres just north of Gore, and farm a total of 1500 acres with leaseblocks included. We bought our farm about 12 years ago, moved down to Gore, got in the old fashioned way with plenty of debt and hard work. 

Some time in the summer the dairy farmer that owns the stock we were grazing sent us some bulls to get those animals in calf. Those bulls came from a farm that, unbeknownst to anyone, was infected with M bovis. It was pure bad luck and we suddenly found ourselves caught up in the debacle.

The bulls were slaughtered and tested immediately. They were found negative, but because of the complexities of M bovis one negative test isn’t enough. We had a movement restriction put on our farm by MPI, and they began testing the cattle on our farm as well. All of that testing was negative over two months, and after two months that restriction was lifted. What that says is that we never had the infection. But a lot of the damage was already done.

During that time some people, people we knew well, were incredibly supportive, but we also kept hearing back through the grapevine about some of the things that were being said behind our back; things like, “did you hear that the Hunts have got M bovis on their farm?”. We have a contracting business as well and our clients had comments made to them like “you’re not getting the Hunts to do your contracting any more are you? They’ve got M bovis.”

The rumours added to the stress levels immensely. It’s bad enough being under a movement restriction and running out of feed and having to contend with all the testing and more stock on your farm than you can handle because you’re not allowed to move anything, that’s all stressful in itself, but it’s especially bad when you hear about the rumours behind your back – most of which were untrue.

When you get put under a movement restriction the first thing you think is how are we going to get through this, but for us, there were additional questions like is our contracting business going to go under? Who’s going to want us on their farm? And are we ever going to be able to sell stock? Those are the things that you’re scared of, and then when the rumors get back to you confirming all that, even though they are completely unfounded … We were at risk, sure, but the testing was about finding out whether it was there or not, and it wasn’t. We never had the infection, but during all of that time we kept hearing “oh they’ve got M bovis”, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to hear.

Some people have used the word stigmatised, and they’re right. You feel like a leper and you wonder who’s talking about you behind your back. We were worried about who might make a comment to our older daughter on the school bus that would be hurtful to her. It makes you not want to leave the house.

We hit absolute rock bottom near the end of April. We’d had very wet conditions, we had no grass left on the farm, we were feeding supplement out to all the stock to feed them, none of the stock were happy and the conditions were terrible. We were as low as you can get, and the worst part is that we had no ability to make decisions to improve our situation. Normally if you’re in a drought or a terrible weather situation and you run out of feed on-farm, you move your stock, or you do things to fix the situation. As farmers we’re decision makers all the time, every day we’re making decisions about how we operate our business for the best, but all of that decision making was removed from us.

The day that we got told that the restriction was being lifted was an instant weight off our shoulders. Nothing had really changed, we still didn’t have grass, but the same night we got the paperwork to make it official, we were making phone calls immediately. We had 500 cattle leave the farm by Thursday. Suddenly we could make decisions and take control of our situation again.

Southland has been ground zero for this outbreak. It started in Canterbury, but for quite a long time now Southland has been the centre of all this. We’ve got our heads around that, but I think the government stepping up is a massive endorsement of the primary sector. There aren’t many countries in the world where that would happen and it sends a huge statement about our value to the country. It’s also reflective of the way that our industry leaders are working alongside government, and giving the government decision makers the confidence that as a rural sector we’ve got what it takes to make best use of their decision.

Part of that decision is around culling herds. When people say mass culls it makes it sound like the whole of the country’s herd is going to be depleted, but as Federated Farmers president Katie Milne said, we’re talking about half a percent of the nations herd. It’s big numbers, but it’s not catastrophic in terms of the whole of the nations cattle herd. We’re talking about sacrificing half a percent of the nations herd for the benefit of the other 99.5%. When you put those numbers out there, why wouldn’t you? It’s a no brainer.

For some people, compensation has been too slow, but I was really relieved to see the government acknowledged that fact, and to put some real pegs in the sand about what our expectations can be going forward.

There is a horrendous emotional toll to farmers. There is often huge attachment to these cows, many of which are reared from birth, and include cows that may have been pet calves and parts of the family. Dairy farmers as a whole take huge care in the welfare of their animals and they’re in direct contact with those animals twice a day, every day, for the vast majority of the year, so there’s a definite emotional factor. The farmers are going to need support to get through that. But an emotional toll watching those same cows getting sick as well. Either way, farmers need support.

The vast majority of farms caught up in this have done nothing wrong. There’s a lot of talk about people acting illegally and farmers being slack with compliance and those kinds of things, and while there are people who didn’t do everything they should have, the vast majority of farmers look after their stock, care deeply about their animals, were not negligent, and have been affected through no fault of their own.

I think there’s a real sentiment out there that farmers are getting this handout when they stuffed it up in the first place, but other people have likened this to the earthquakes: there was never any question about the government stepping in and helping with the rebuild, and most farmers are at no more fault than the residents of Christchurch were. It’s just bad luck and people should be cognisant of that when they’re making comments. For farmers who are in a delicate emotional situation anyway, seeing some of the hurtful and ill informed statements people are making really doesn’t help.

I’m hugely grateful to every taxpayer who is footing some of the bill for this, and I don’t think any farmer takes that for granted at all, but at the same time we deliver a lot for the country as well.

It’s just about empathy, it really goes a long way.

Keep going!