Photo: Sandra Mu/Getty Images

How did NZ end up facing a 150,000-cow, $886m cull, and who is to blame?

This week the government announced a mass cull in an attempt to rid New Zealand of Mycoplasma bovis. Via RNZ, an explainer on how we ended up here

On Monday, the government announced a 10-year plan to eradicate the disease, saying about 150,000 cows would have to be slaughtered. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government had “one shot” at eliminating the disease, at a cost of about $886 million to government and industry bodies.

The news is devastating for many farmers who have devoted their lives to the industry. Some fear their livelihoods will be destroyed.

But how did we get here?

The first case

During the first few months of the outbreak, the disease appeared to spread slowly, and farmers and authorities were confident it would be contained.

In late July last year, the Ministry for Primary Industries announced a cattle disease that had never before been seen in New Zealand had been detected in a South Canterbury herd.

The ministry said 14 cows, out of a herd of 150, had tested positive for Mycoplasma bovis – a potentially deadly disease that caused mastitis, pneumonia, abortions and lameness.

The site was named as the Tainui Dairy farm, owned by the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group, which has a total of 16 farms and 12,500 cows in South Canterbury and North Otago.

The group was served with notices stopping any movement on and off their farms.

Owner Aad Van Leeuwen said he hoped the outbreak had been contained, and so far, there had been no sign of the disease at any of his other farms.

But Waimate farmer Alan Gibson sent a stark warning, saying the situation would get worse.

“I think we would be naive to think it’s contained on one farm. The fact it may have been there since March … it may easily be somewhere else as well, it just hasn’t been picked up yet,” Mr Gibson said.

He called for the ministry to quickly kill any infected cows.

The ministry at the time said it might never know how the disease entered the country, and it wouldn’t consider killing cows until it had determined the size of the problem.

All 150 of the cows on Tainui Dairy Farm cows were eventually put down.

The slow spread

A day after Mr Gibson’s warning, on 31 July, a second case was discovered in South Canterbury, at another of the Van Leeuwen Group’s farms.

MPI said it had discovered other farms may have received stock from the Van Leeuwen Group, and it was following up on those animals.

The ministry said it was fielding calls from worried farmers.

A public meeting took place in North Otago, where almost 150 farmers called for answers from biosecurity officials.

Waimate mayor Craig Rowley said it was clear MPI was struggling to keep up with demands for testing.

MPI responded by saying the testing of 62 farms in the vicinity of the outbreak would take several months.

On 28 August, the ministry announced a third farm, near Oamaru, was in lockdown after a positive test. The farm had taken some cattle from one of the Van Leeuwen farms before the original outbreak was discovered.

North Otago Federated Farmers spokesperson Lyndon Strang said there was no reason for other farmers to be worried.

“It wasn’t totally unexpected that they would find another animal … There has been a lot of transfer of stock in the last six months before the notices were put in place,” he said.

Waitaki district mayor Gary Kircher said he believed MPI had the situation under control.

Jacinda Ardern announces the government’s decision to attempt to eradicate the cattle disease Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

The start of the landslide

The day after these comments, three new South Island properties were confirmed to have tested positive.

Two, which were already under restricted notices, belonged to the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group. The other was a lifestyle block near Rangiora that had received some calves from the farm near Oamaru.

MPI response coordinator David Yard warned now that more properties were likely to test positive for Mycoplasma bovis.

“There’s almost no doubt that these are links to movements of animals from farm to farm,” Mr Yard said.

On 1 September, MPI said it would decide by the end of 2017 whether it would try to eradicate the disease.

The ministry said it should know in six weeks what country the outbreak came from.

But it was clear fear was spreading, as MPI confirmed reports that farmers in South Canterbury and North Otago were having contracts cancelled due to fears about infection.

A month later, on 2 October, a seventh property tested positive.

The farm was the fifth owned by the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group to become infected.

The culling begins

MPI director of response Geoff Gwyn said about 4000 total cattle would need to be culled. All the infected properties would need to be decontaminated and then restocked, and affected farmers would be compensated.

Mr Van Leeuwen said he supported the decision to cull – something he said he had wanted to do from the start.

“This is starting to confirm our belief that the bovis bug may well be more widespread than just the seven confirmed farms to date,” Mr Van Leeuwen said.

On 11 November, two new Waimate farms that shared a border with one of the infected Van Leeuwen farms were quarantined.

Yet Mr Gwyn said it was still too early to panic.

“We do not believe the new suspect properties represent a game changer… Our investigators are still building a picture of how animals on the farms could have been infected, if indeed they are, and what stock movements may have taken place onto the farms,” Mr Gwyn said.

Newly-appointed agriculture minister Damien O’Connor took aim at the previous government, which he said stalled culling infected cattle because of the election.

A few days later, after one of the two quarantined Waimate farms tested positive, MPI said it still believed it had the disease contained.

The fight against the tide

On 12 December, Mycoplasma bovis was found for the first time outside Canterbury and Otago.

MPI said four new properties had become infected – three in Winton in Southland and another near Hastings.

A fifth case was suspected near Ashburton.

It was a major setback for officials, who until then had spokenly confidently of containment.

All the properties were linked with the Van Leeuwen Dairy Group.

Authorities still insisted they hadn’t lost control, but Geoff Gwyn conceded there was a possibility the disease had spread further than first thought.

Hastings District dairy farmer Nick Dawson said news of the spread to Hawke’s Bay was a big blow to his community.

“We felt pretty safe up here but in hindsight it was inevitable. We’re one big country and we can’t close the barrier between the North and South Island,” Mr Dawson said.

Farmers would be devastated if cows had to be killed, he said.

“They’re almost part of your family and they’ve served you well for years and years.”

On 19 December, hundreds of farmers packed the Winton hall in Southland to learn more about Mycoplasma bovis. Attendance was so significant, some had to listen from outside.

At the meeting, MPI announced that there has been 15 separate stock movements from the infected Winton farm.

MPI held another meeting for farmers in Hawke’s Bay the following night.

At this point, Mr O’Connor took aim at the national animal identification and tracing system, NAIT, which he said was not being adhered to by farmers.

NAIT was developed seven years ago from a partnership between the agricultural industry and the government.

“The reality is that the tracing system is totally inadequate and we’ve had to rely on the honesty and goodwill of firstly the infected farm, and then others who may be connected to try and trace animal movements,” Mr O’Connor said.

New year, same problems

January brought a tide of new cases.

Farms in Ashburton, Southland and Waimate tested positive, bringing the total to 20 by the end of the month.

MPI said the farms were closely connected with previously infected properties.

All 27 entries for the showcasing event at the annual New Zealand Dairy Event in Feilding were withdrawn after requests from both MPI and DairyNZ.

In early February, Federated Farmers called on the government to make a definitive decision to alleviate the pressure.

President Katie Milne said it was unfortunate the outbreak had happened before improvements to NAIT could be made.

“[The system] could be a lot easier to use from a farmer’s perspective. When the system was put in place, we all used it for awhile, but it did become clear there were things about it that could be made easier,” Ms Milne said.

“There are people who don’t have great access to internet, so unfortunately there can be some lagging.”

Mr O’Connor said farmers had been neglectful of the system.

A review found only 57 percent of farmers who record their animal movements do so within the required 48 hours.

The number of infected farms reached 25 by the end of February.

A checkpoint was set up in Picton to try and stop the spread of the disease across the Cook Strait.

The frustration and the fury

On March 26, MPI announced all 22,000 infected cattle would be culled, costing about $60 million, and farmers would be compensated.

However, Southland vet Mark Bryan said the cull would not be the end of the story, as cattle would continue to carry the disease without testing positive, meaning it could take up to three years to wipe it out.

Oamaru farmer Kerry Dwyer, who had sent all 4000 of his calves to slaughter in September, said he was still desperately waiting to rebuild his business with compensation from MPI.

He was worried the process would take years.

On 28 March, MPI, still unable to trace the source of the disease, swooped on three properties in the North and South Islands. Officials searched those properties, but refused to give more information.

Federated Farmers said MPI had indicated at meetings that the disease could have arrived via imported genetic material.

Six possible routes were identified – the importation of bull semen, cow embryos, vaccines, feed, machinery, or live animals.

Massey University associate professor Richard Laven speculated that while the source may never be known, imported bull semen was the most likely answer.

“It is definitely possible to find live Mycoplasma bovis in the semen from bulls that are M bovis positive, but even that is unlikely,” Prof Laven said.

In a report from MPI’s technical advisory group, it was revealed the government’s scientists had become far more pessimistic about the chances of eradicating the disease.

They said there was uncertainty about the cost and effectiveness of efforts to control the disease, and they believed success was unlikely. The group queried whether attempts to eradicate would be worth it.

At the beginning of May, after MPI confirmed yet a second farm in the North Island – in the Pahiatua area – had tested positive, the issue of money again reared its ugly head.

It was revealed the government and Federated Farmers had been arguing for weeks over how who should pay for the outbreak.

National MP Nathan Guy said farmers had told him they were under pressure to cover 50 percent of the bill for eradication, which would be hundreds of millions of dollars. He urged the government to reconsider.

Federated Farmers accused the government of changing the rules.

The same day, Mr O’Connor said the total bill could come to $1 billion and farmers would be asked to pay $400 million. He argued the industry’s exports were at $20bn every year, and it should make a contribution.

He said the government had a tough choice to make between full or phased eradication of the disease, or containment.

The answer?

Not all farmers want the same outcome.

Many conceded eradication was the best course of attack, however others, like mid-Canterbury dairy farmer Willy Leferink, said money should be spent on learning to live with Mycoplasma bovis.

He said those with infected cattle should be asked to pay to control the spread of the disease.

Federated Farmers said the stress had taken its toll and turned people against each other.

Federated Farmers’ Dairy chairman Chris Lewis said some farmers had lost their cool after discovering their neighbour was having cattle tested for the illness and had not told them.

“It’s not something to be ashamed of. The farmers who’ve got it – they’ve done nothing wrong. They’ve probably got it by accident,” he said.

“It’s tough. There are no easy solutions, but these days you’ve got to support your fellow farmers. We’re all in it together to get rid of this.”

By 10 May, the number of infected farms had reached the mid-30s. Another 40 were considered highly likely to be infected.

MPI told media it was leaning towards containment, rather than eradication, and an announcement could be expected towards the end of the month.

Almost 300 farms were under regulatory control, and 1700 were regarded as being “of interest”.

Mr O’Connor again criticised NAIT for the spread of the disease, and was joined by Jacinda Ardern, who said her government had inherited a “shamefully underfunded” system that was an “abysmal failure”.

The government said farmers who did not abide by the system could face penalties.

Mr O’Connor said eradication was very difficult, and maybe impossible. Up to 60,000 cows could be infected.

Meanwhile, only $5m had been paid out in compensation.

MPI conceded paying farmers and sharemilkers had taken too long, with only 20 percent of claims paid so far.

On 14 May, Mycoplasma bovis was discovered on a Waikato farm for the first time, and it was revealed two more were being monitored.

Last week, MPI backtracked and said the Tainui Dairy farm was not the original source of the outbreak, but rather a Southland farm owned by Alfons Zeestraten.

The ministry said he had sold cows around the country, and a lack of stock records had slowed the tracking process.

Mr Zeestraten said he had been unfairly portrayed as a “criminal”, and he didn’t know how his cows became infected.

With the police now investigating how the disease got into the country, Ms Ardern said she was not ready to admit defeat.

This week, she confirmed the government would over the next 10 years fight to eradicate Mycoplasma bovis from New Zealand.

No country has ever managed to do this.

Originally published by RNZ

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