Thursday, 31 May 2018 10:55

A system set up to fail

Written by  Neil McLean
Gordon farmer Neil McLean. Gordon farmer Neil McLean.

With Mycoplasma bovis confirmed as having arrived in Waikato’s dairy heartland, the time has come for the region’s farmers to look hard at how it might affect their businesses. 

At this point, emotional outbursts and finger-pointing about blame, lack of process or slow decisions are best left for calmer times. 

Choosing whether to eliminate or contain the disease is well outside any individual farmer’s responsibility; they should be recognising the issues under their control and dealing with them accordingly.

I will need to develop a plan that considers my learnings and concerns to date to manage the risk this disease creates, before taking considered steps to ensure the security of my farming business.  I envisage a key part of those considered steps will be a team effort between farm staff and, most importantly, our farm veterinarian who will have up-to-date technical data to help implement the plan at grassroots.

The latest information on the key transmission vectors of this disease suggests it comes from direct contact of nasal secretions by nose contact or grooming of the infected animal’s coat. This suggests there should not be a problem in a closed herd living in an isolated ‘bubble’ but it will be a problem that magnifies if infected stock is brought into that herd. 

Currently, testing for the presence of M.bovis through any screening process of individual animals is not available, so this compromises my ability to manage the risk of an infection appearing in the herd. 

A characteristic of the New Zealand dairy industry is the extensive movement of cattle throughout a typical season; that rapidly multiplies the potential risk of non-infected cattle being exposed to the relatively low numbers of those carrying the disease.

Our farm has a closed herd policy with a secure electric fence providing extra security within the boundary fence. However, two areas of our system expose us to external cattle. 

The first sees young calves being sent off-farm to a grazier at weaning, before returning to the property about 18 months later. In the ideal system, the grazier’s property would have specific areas for these animals to prevent them encountering any other cattle. In the real world, you can imagine this is unlikely and how difficult this discussion will be with the commercial grazier to meet this requirement. 

The second potential source of exposure is the bulls used to complete the mating season within the milking herd, because there is no easy method of screening animals for the disease, as we now do for BVD. 

As a Fonterra supplier we record data to provide traceability of the milk we produce, right through to the end users. The spectre of M.bovis means that to be able to protect the viability of our milking platform we need to have similar visibility of the animals entering or leaving the property. 

The introduction of NAIT was a good step to providing this, but its efficacy appears to have been diluted by too many compromises being granted to get the project implemented. 

These compromises are compounded by there being no organisation to champion the system and no consequences imposed by MPI on farms doing sub-standard recording; all this has set up the scheme for failure. 

Already the official view suggests that response time would be less if information on stock movements were entered into the NAIT system in a timely way, and within the 48 hour guidelines. Reporting surveys indicate that this farmer responsibility is only being met about 60% of the time. 

Without doubt, if NZ is serious about protecting its position and reputation as a superior food producer, this level of reporting must improve dramatically, while also eliminating the need to shuffle pieces of paper. Surely, a smartphone to scan a bar code or QR directly uplifted to the NAIT system if a connection is possible, or stored in the cloud until a connection is enabled, must be possible in this tech savvy age; likewise an entry/exit scanner fitted to all livestock haulage trucks. 

Yes there will be a cost, but surely one we need to accept if we want to protect our livelihoods.

• Neil McLean is a dairy farmer in Gordonton, Waikato.


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