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Farming: Uncertainty, frustration and delay

29 May 2018

I just listened to a Southland vet, Mark Bryan, talking on Radio NZ about the uncertainty facing Southland and South Otago dairy farmers. “Over the next 10 days virtually every dairy cow has to move off the dairy platform and find new pasture for the winter and no-one has a clear picture of how this will happen,” says Mark.

“Mycoplasma Bovis (M. bovis) has created a huge amount of uncertainty and it is hard for everyone involved, for the farmers, for the community that support dairy farmers, vets and technicians, for the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), for truck drivers, contractors and the like.”

It appears that no-one has a clear idea of how the next 10 days will unfold with the decision due from government on Monday 28 May of whether there will be an attempt to eradicate M. bovis or whether managing it is the chosen option. Either way it will affect all cattle farmers. It is expected to cost $1,000,000,000 no matter which option is selected.

“Farmers who are used to planning 12 months ahead can’t be sure of where they will be 10 days from now and it is hugely frustrating for everyone involved,” says a barely contained Mark Bryan.

As an example, a share milker, who has an agreement to winter their cows on a property, is unsure whether there will be restrictions placed upon the farm they are heading to. Likewise, the farmer with the winter pasture expecting the arrival of a herd of cows, doesn’t know at this stage whether there will be restrictions placed on the share milker’s cows that are due in a few days.

Some farmers involved with M. bovis have been pretty scathing of the MPI response with one calling the MPI handling “a slow and uncoordinated response” and another, “MPI have completely dropped the ball on the M.bovis response”. On the radio interview with Mark Bryan he was asked whether the Ministry for Primary Industries has handled the outbreak of M.bovis well, or not.

Mark was careful not to apportion blame, but he did say that it had been hugely frustrating for farmers. Mark went on to say that if MPI had the map of affected farms 9 days after the first reported outbreak then they would have had a better chance of containing the outbreak and the treatment of affected farms might have been very different. Instead, it took MPI 9 months to produce a map of affected farms and it only became available last week.

The main reason for the delay in mapping the affected farms was the lack of animal tracking data. There is a system in New Zealand for tracking the movement of cattle and deer and it is meant to be compulsory and although some farmers use it properly it is not uniform across the industry. The online program is called National Animal Identification and Tracking or Nait and it requires every cattle and deer animal to have an electronically readable ear tag and for all movements of animals to be recorded online. Apparently Nait is not a perfect tool and there may not have been proper enforcement of its use by MPI over the years.

According to Mark Bryan, MPI has also been straddled with 5 or 6 major bio-security incursions at the same time, they have been under-resourced for a number of years, individual staff are under huge pressure and they had a change of government right in the middle of the response. All in all, a perfect storm.

The ability of a government department to respond to major catastrophes like M. bovis after years of ‘business as usual’ was always going to be a big ask. By definition, a government department is a bureaucracy. They don’t have skin in the game like a farmer does. They are subject to political pressures at the top. Remember the inability of the Earthquake Commission to respond quickly and expertly to the Christchurch earthquake? Imagine how our armed forces would cope if we were suddenly thrust into a major war (poorly). Has biosecurity been at the top of every Prime Minister’s mind as the major threat to New Zealand over the past 50 years? I doubt it. Well it is now.

Keep asking great questions …

             

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