Fines for farmers who haven’t followed the country’s stock tracing system might soon be handed out. David Williams reports.

A national crackdown on tracing cattle movements, sparked by the discovery of the disease Mycoplasma bovis, might be about to bite. 

In March, the Ministry for Primary Industries started Operation Cook Strait, checking that cattle being moved from the South Island to the North complied with the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) scheme.

MPI manager of compliance investigations Gary Orr told Newsroom: “We are considering issuing a number of infringement notices following Operation Cook Strait.”

He confirmed MPI would conduct enforcement checks tomorrow during what’s known as Moving Day, or Gypsy Day – when thousands of cattle move stock for winter grazing or new sharemilking contracts. “As with any operation of this nature, we will not reveal where this will take place ahead of time,” Orr said. He would not  confirm if more MPI staff will be involved compared to previous years.

Five years of voluntary NAIT compliance, as MPI calls it, hasn’t worked, with adherence as low as 30 percent in some areas. Stuff reported in December that only one $150 fine had been issued since 2012 for failing to declare the movement of an animal.

Orr says MPI animal welfare officers are now seeing “various levels of compliance” with NAIT. “We are continuing to educate farmers on NAIT and we’ve been clear – there is zero tolerance for not using NAIT.”

Disease spread

Cattle in South Canterbury first tested positive for M. bovis last July. Confidential briefings for then Minister Nathan Guy showed how MPI initially struggled to keep up with sample testing, visit restricted farms and trace animal movements.

The number of infected properties has lifted to 41, mostly in Southland (13), South Canterbury/North Otago (12) and Mid-Canterbury (7). Four South Island farms have now had restrictions lifted after being depopulated and cleaned.

Days after Operation Cook Strait was announced, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced the cull of more than 22,000 animals to try and get on top of the disease, which appears to have been in Southland before it was in South Canterbury.

On Monday, the Government announced a 10-year plan of phased eradication of M. bovis, which might cost $886 million – including an expected $592 million bill for taxpayers. It might involve slaughtering as many as 152,000 animals.

MPI must now walk a fine line of cracking down on NAIT non-compliance, while rebuilding trust with farmers, who have criticised the ministry for its handling of the outbreak, particularly for the pace of compensation payments.

“It’ll come down to individual farmers doing everything they can.” – Wayne McNee

Wayne McNee, the chief executive of NZX-listed Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC), could be considered the founder of MPI. As director general of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, he led the merger of MAF, the Food Safety Authority and Ministry of Fisheries into MPI.

McNee supports the Government and industry decision to try and eradicate M. bovis. He says awareness and minimising animal movements – to prevent the potential spread through animal-to-animal contact – as key.

“I travel to the South Island fairly regularly and that awareness has been heightened in the south for quite some time. But we’ve seen that in the north now,” he says. “Government can do a certain amount and industry can do a certain amount, at DairyNZ level, but it’ll come down to individual farmers doing everything they can.”

LIC is literally a daddy to the country’s dairy herd. It supplies 80 percent of the bull semen that’s inseminated into cows in New Zealand. It has up to 800 bulls at any one time, including 110 bulls in its premier sires team, across different breeds.

While the Reserve Bank yesterday tagged M. bovis as an emerging risk for the dairy sector, saying it might hit productivity and profitability, and lead to bank losses, McNee is more sanguine.

“We believe the industry can remain strong and will remain strong,” McNee says. “We haven’t made any market statement relating to this [eradication decision] and that’s because we don’t think it has changed our risk profile beyond what we already publish – we already have biosecurity as one of our top-five risks.”

Livestock Improvement Corporation chief executive Wayne McNee, who led the merger of ministries to create MPI in 2011. Photo: LIC

LIC found itself under the spotlight this week, defending its M. bovis response on social media and in an email sent to shareholders. On Tuesday, Cambridge farmer Henk Smit – who last week publicly owned up to having his farm infected by M. bovis – posted concerns on a social media group, visible to thousands of farmers, about whether LIC had taken stock from an infected farm.

(“I’ve got no proof,” Smit tells Newsroom. “But I’m just trying to line up a number of dots.” Therein lies the social media lesson of M. bovis – that allegations are sometimes made based on guesswork, rumours and hunches.)

McNee says he understands people are concerned and describes the questions as “very reasonable”. He confirms the company bought one bull in January 2017, from a property that was subsequently found to have infected stock. MPI confirmed the bull was moved to LIC six months before the herd received its infected stock, he says. LIC was never put under any notice or restriction.

LIC conducts its own tests, using MPI-approved processes and protocols. The company tested all its production bulls in September and again in March and April. All the tests were clear, McNee says.

He explains production bulls are in a lifetime quarantine, so there’s no animal-to-animal contact. New bulls are isolated – on two different farms – and tested for a range of diseases before being accepted to the main breeding facility, at Newstead, in Hamilton.

“This [biosecurity work] is absolutely critical to us and, we believe, to the national herd, that we do this because we supply about 80 percent of the semen that’s supplied to NZ dairy farmers and there would be significant consequences, not just for LIC but also for dairy farmers, if we were unable to supply semen both in terms of genetic gain but also getting their cows in calf.”

Rollercoaster ahead

Academics are warning of the looming emotional toll of eradication. University of Auckland’s Dr Daniel Tisch, of the department of management and international business, says the mental and emotional state of farmers will be affected for years. “The incidence of depression, suicide and other mental health conditions will rise.”

NZ Veterinary Association chief veterinary officer Dr Helen Beattie says eradication will be extremely stressful for farmers, financially and personally. “And it could take years to achieve because infected animals might have no signs of illness and the bacterium is hard to identify through testing.”

McNee says eradication will be devastating for individual farmers, especially breeders who might be sending apparently healthy animals to be slaughtered. “We’ve got farmers that have had cows in their families – cow families – for generations.”

Industry-wide, 150,000 is a lot of cows that might have to be culled to eradicate M. bovis, he says, but about a million are culled each year, anyway, for a variety of reasons. If those cull numbers are reached, there might be a small impact on production, he says. But he’s picking the bigger problem will be movement restrictions.

“If you can’t send your cows to grazing, or you’re limited in where you can send them, then that will affect your ability to feed them and therefore affect production. The good thing is, at least, on a positive note, the milk price is relatively high, forecast to be high for next year, so, in some cases, you can probably afford to bring feed in to help with that issue.”

MPI is expected to consult on recommended changes to the NAIT system in the next few months.

* This story has been updated to reflect that MPI  said compliance with NAIT was voluntary.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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